The emperor of nihon ja, p.14
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       The Emperor of Nihon-Ja, p.14

         Part #10 of Ranger's Apprentice series by John Flanagan
 

  This barbaric behaviour, intended to cow the Kikori into submission, was actually self-defeating. The Kikori were a profoundly law-abiding people and they placed great value on the concept of legal and rightful succession to the throne – even if they had never seen the Emperor himself. Shigeru was the rightful Emperor and their deeply felt sense of morality told them that he must not be deposed by force. Arisaka’s depredations only served to convince them that he was a would-be usurper, whose attempts to gain power bordered on sacrilege and must be resisted. And, as a corollary to that, Shigeru must be supported.

  So, as villages were plundered and burned, the Kikori joined Shigeru’s party, in dribs and drabs, until there were several hundred of them – men, women and children – toiling up the precipitous tracks over the mountains, helping carry the wounded in their litters and bringing much-needed supplies of food with them. It was hard going, even for the mountain-bred Kikori, and the need to carry the wounded slowed them down. Shukin, Shigeru and Horace were constantly aware that Arisaka’s main force was somewhere behind them, closing the gap between them each day.

  ‘If only we knew where he was,’ Shukin said. He had called a brief halt at noon and the bearers had gratefully set down the litters and sprawled beside the track. Some took the opportunity to eat a little of the food they carried. Others simply lay back, resting and regaining their strength, trying to let a few minutes’ respite ease the ache of strained muscles.

  Without anything being said, Horace had become one of the small group leading the trek. Shigeru had recognised his worth as an expert warrior and an experienced campaigner and was grateful to have someone share the burden that his cousin Shukin had assumed. Looking at his two main supporters now, the Emperor smiled ruefully. They were far from the idealised picture of a royal party, he thought. Exhausted, mud stained, grimy and soaking wet, their robes and tunics torn in a dozen places by thorns and sharp branches along the track, laden with rough packs of food and blankets, they looked more like a group of wandering vagabonds than the Emperor and his two principal advisers. Then he glanced at the swords the two men wore – Horace’s long and straight in the Araluan style, and Shukin’s katana, shorter, double hilted and slightly curved. There was no mud there, he knew. Both blades, inside their scabbards, were scrupulously clean and razor-edged – a result of their owners cleaning and sharpening them each evening.

  ‘When do you expect the scouts to come back in?’ Horace asked. Two days before, Shukin had asked for volunteers among the Kikori to go back along their trail to look for some sign of Arisaka’s position. There had been no lack of numbers willing to take on the task and he had sent four of the fittest younger men back down the mountain.

  ‘It’ll depend how long it takes them to find Arisaka,’ Shukin said. ‘I’m hoping we hear from them later rather than sooner.’

  Horace nodded. If the scouts returned this evening, he thought, they would have good cause to worry. Allowing for the fact that the lightly laden Kikori, expert in traversing this country, would travel much faster than Arisaka’s men, they would still have to travel double the distance – there and back. If they returned in the next twelve hours, Arisaka couldn’t be more than two days behind them.

  ‘How far now to Ran-Koshi?’ Shigeru asked.

  Shukin shrugged in reply. ‘Toru says about five leagues, as the crow flies.’

  Horace grimaced. ‘We’re not crows,’ he said and Shigeru smiled tiredly.

  ‘More’s the pity.’

  Five leagues was over twenty kilometres, Horace estimated. But travelling up and down ridges as they were, and traversing around rearing mountainsides, the distance they covered on the ground could be five or six times as much as that and it would be hard going, all the way.

  ‘We should be there in four days, if all goes well,’ Shukin said hopefully. Neither Horace nor Shigeru replied, although Horace couldn’t help asking himself the question, why should things start doing that now?

  They heard voices raised further back down the column and they all rose and turned to see what was causing the disturbance. Horace saw two young men trotting tiredly up the track, past the rows of resting Kikori, who called questions to them as they came. The two arrivals shook their heads in answer to the questions. Unlike most of the travellers, they were lightly dressed, without heavy robes or cloaks to protect them from the chill air of the mountains. They wore breeches and shirts and stout leather boots, and carried small packs that could have held only the barest minimum of food and water. They were dressed and equipped to travel quickly and Horace felt a cold hand close over his heart as he recognised them as two of the scouts Shukin had sent back.

  ‘This doesn’t look good,’ he said, noting the serious expressions on the arrivals’ faces. Shukin grunted in reply and the three of them moved down the track to meet the scouts.

  The young men saw them and redoubled their pace, dropping to one knee and bowing their heads before the Emperor. Gently, Shigeru put them at their ease.

  ‘Please stand, my friends. This muddy track is no place for ceremony.’ He looked around and saw several interested bystanders watching them, curious to know what the scouts had discovered. ‘Can someone bring food and a hot drink for these men? And warm clothing.’

  Several of the bystanders hurried away to do his bidding. The remainder crowded a little closer, eager to hear the report. Shukin glared at them and waved them back.

  ‘Give us room,’ he said. ‘You’ll hear the news soon enough.’

  Reluctantly, they backed away, although their eyes remained riveted on the small group. Shukin ushered the two scouts to the spot where he had recently been resting.

  ‘Sit down and rest first,’ he said. They sank gratefully to the wet ground, unslinging their packs. One of them began to speak but Shukin held up a hand to stop him.

  ‘Eat and drink first,’ he said, as food and hot tea were placed before them. The people who had brought the food stood by, wanting to linger and hear what the scouts had to report. But Shukin’s quick glance and a jerk of his head moved them away. Horace realised that his order for the men to eat first was more than simple kindness. He didn’t want anyone to overhear what they had to say.

  The scouts noisily slurped down their bowls of rich pork broth and noodles. As they ate, Horace saw the strain and weariness fading from their faces.

  Shukin waited till they had eaten most of the noodles.

  ‘You found Arisaka?’ he said quietly.

  Both men nodded. One, his mouth momentarily full of hot broth, looked to his companion to answer.

  ‘His army is barely a day’s travel from here,’ the scout said and Horace heard Shukin’s quick intake of breath. Shigeru, as ever, seemed unmoved by the news, simply accepting it for what it was.

  ‘A day!’ Shukin repeated, in a troubled voice. He ran his hands through his hair. Horace recognised the distress in his action. Burdened with the task of keeping his Emperor safe, Shukin could see his enemies drawing ever closer. ‘How can they be moving so quickly?’

  The first scout had gained his voice now. ‘Arisaka is driving them cruelly, my lord,’ he said. ‘He is determined to take Lord Shigeru.’

  ‘His men won’t thank him for it,’ Horace said thoughtfully but Shukin made a dismissive gesture.

  ‘His men will accept it. They’re used to his lack of regard for their wellbeing.’ He looked up at the scouts. ‘Where are your two companions?’

  ‘They stayed behind to watch Arisaka,’ he was told. ‘When he gets within half a day’s march, they’ll come on to warn us.’

  ‘At the rate he’s catching up, that should be some time late tomorrow,’ Shukin said thoughtfully. He unrolled the map of the mountains that he and Toru had drawn up and pondered it. Arisaka was a day away from their present position. If they moved out now and kept moving, they would extend the time it would take him to catch them, but even so, he was making ground on them too quickly.

  He looked up and nodded his gratitude to th
e scouts.

  ‘Thank you both. You’ve done well. Now go and get warm clothing and a little rest. We’ll be moving out shortly.’

  They bowed and turned to go, but he called them back.

  ‘Ask Toru to come here, would you?’ he said. They nodded and trotted away. Horace and Shigeru said nothing as Shukin studied the rough chart, tapping his fingers on his chin as he did so. A few minutes later, Toru arrived.

  ‘You sent for me, Lord Shukin?’

  ‘Yes. Yes. Never mind that,’ Shukin said, waving away Toru’s formal bow. ‘Sit down here.’

  The Kikori guide sank to his knees, feet folded under him. Horace shook his head. He could only hold that position for a few minutes, then his knees and thighs would begin burning. The locals, he knew, could sit comfortably for hours in that pose.

  ‘Arisaka is a day away from this point,’ Shukin told Toru. The guide showed no sign of emotion at the news. ‘At the current rate he’s catching us, we’ve probably got a day and a half. Maybe two days if we push the column as hard as we can.’

  He paused to let Toru absorb this information.

  ‘How long do you think it will take us to reach Ran-Koshi?’

  The Kikori raised his eyes to meet Shukin’s. ‘At our current speed, at least four days.’

  Shukin’s shoulders sank. He had expected the answer but had been hoping against hope that Toru might have better news.

  ‘Then we have to find some way to delay him,’ Shukin said, after a moment’s thought.

  Toru’s face brightened and he reached for the map, turning it towards him and studying it. Then he jabbed a forefinger at a spot.

  ‘Here, lord,’ he said. ‘This ravine is impassable – except for a simple footbridge. If we destroy it, Arisaka will have to take a long detour…along this ridge…down another, then across this narrow valley. And then he’ll have to regain all that lost ground.’ His hand swept in a long curve across the map. ‘It will take him at least two weeks.’

  Shukin nodded in satisfaction. ‘Excellent. We’ll destroy the bridge. When will we reach it?’

  Toru’s face fell as he saw the fault in his suggestion. ‘Lord, the bridge is two days away. Arisaka will catch us before we reach it.’

  There was a long silence, then Shukin took the map and deliberately rolled it and replaced it in the leather tube that protected it from the elements.

  ‘Then we’ll have to buy a little more time along the way,’ he said.

  The western coast of Nihon-Ja lay before them as the ship rocked gently on a long, glassy swell.

  The flat land at the coast quickly gave way to a succession of heavily timbered hills. Behind them, ranges of steep mountains rose high into the air, their peaks already covered in snow and intermittently concealed by cloud driven on the wind.

  It was rough-looking country, Will thought, as he leaned on the bulwark beside Halt, studying this new land. After weeks at sea, breathing the freshness of the salt air, he was conscious of a new smell borne to him on the wind: charcoal or woodsmoke, he realised. They must be relatively close to a town or large village, although at the moment none was visible.

  ‘There,’ said Halt, reading his thoughts and pointing to a long cape that thrust out into the sea to the north of them. Will peered at it but could see no sign of buildings or people. Then he realised what Halt had been pointing at as he made out signs of smoke haze in the air. Judging by the extent of the smoke, he thought, there must be a sizeable town beyond the cape.

  ‘Is that Iwanai?’ he asked Gundar. The skirl went through his usual routine of air sniffing, sail checking and spitting over the side.

  ‘We’ve come a little south,’ he said. He sounded disgruntled and Will smiled to himself. He’d seen enough of Skandian skirls to know they prided themselves on making perfect landfalls – even in places they’d never actually been before. After weeks at sea, using only the stars, instinct, his northseeker needle and a cross staff, Gundar had brought them to within a few kilometres of their destination.

  ‘You’ve done well, Gundar,’ Halt said quietly.

  The skirl looked at him and shrugged. ‘Could have been better.’ He checked the wind tell-tale and leaned on the tiller to bring the bow around to the north-west, setting a course to weather the long cape before them. Wolfwill heeled to port, then began to swoop over the swell.

  ‘What do we do when we reach Iwanai?’ Will asked Halt. For so long now, the seaside town in the middle of Nihon-Ja had been their goal. Now they were nearly there, it was time to consider their next course of action.

  ‘According to the message George sent, the man who guided him down from the mountains will be in the town,’ Halt said. ‘We need to make contact with him. He’s loyal to the Emperor and should be able to take us to him.’

  ‘As easy as that?’ Will said. ‘We just stroll ashore in a strange town in a foreign country and ask, “Has anyone seen George’s friend, please?”’

  Evanlyn was consulting the message she had received from George so many weeks ago.

  ‘His name is Atsu,’ she told them. ‘And they should be able to put us in touch with him at a ryokan called the Shokaku.’

  ‘What’s a…ryokan? And what’s a shokaku?’ Will asked and she smiled helplessly.

  ‘I haven’t the faintest idea,’ she said. She glanced at Alyss for help. The blonde girl had taken a copy of the message when they left Toscana and had been studying it in the past few days, referring to the book of Nihon-Jan words and phrases that Lady Pauline had sent to her.

  ‘A ryokan is an inn,’ she told them. ‘And shokaku is a crane of some kind.’

  ‘For lifting things?’ Will asked.

  ‘For flying. A large bird type of crane,’ she corrected him. ‘In fact, as near as I can work it out, shokaku means “a flying crane”.’

  ‘Seems like a logical thing for a crane to do,’ Halt mused. ‘I suppose you wouldn’t expect it to mean “a hiking crane” or “a waddling crane”.’ He paused, then studied Alyss carefully for a few seconds. ‘Are you sure you’ll be able to make yourself understood here?’

  Alyss hesitated. ‘Pretty sure. It’s one thing practising a language with another foreigner, another to hear it spoken by the natives. But I’m fairly sure I’ll manage. One thing, though,’ she added. ‘I think when we go ashore looking for this Atsu person we should keep the numbers down.’

  The trace of a smile touched Halt’s mouth. ‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘After all, we are an exotic bunch, aren’t we? I suspect the sight of Selethen, Gundar and Nils walking the streets would draw a lot of attention. We’d be better to keep as low a profile as possible.’

  ‘So it’ll just be the four of us?’ Evanlyn said and Halt shook his head.

  ‘Three. Alyss because she speaks the language. Will because I want someone to watch my back.’

  ‘But…’ Evanlyn began, her cheeks reddening. His unspoken words were all too obvious. There was no useful role she could play in the search for George’s former guide. Yet she hated the idea of being left out. Evanlyn had a keen sense of curiosity and always liked to be at the centre of things.

  Halt raised an eyebrow at her now. ‘But?’ he repeated.

  ‘Well, it’s not really fair, is it?’ Evanlyn protested. ‘After all, this is my expedition.’ The words sounded weak as she said them.

  ‘Fair has nothing to do with it,’ Halt replied. ‘But you’re right, it is your expedition…’

  Before he could continue, Evanlyn seized on his words, thinking he might be showing signs of relenting.

  ‘That’s right! If it weren’t for me, none of us would be here.’

  ‘Actually, I think credit for getting us here goes to Gundar,’ Will interposed, and she glared at him.

  Halt stepped in quickly to nip any further discord in the bud. ‘As I say, it is your expedition – and I’m sure you’d want to see it carried out in the most efficient way possible. Correct?’

  ‘Well…if you put it that way…of course,
’ Evanlyn was forced to concede.

  ‘And that means a small party going ashore initially,’ Halt said, his tone indicating that this was the end of the discussion. Then his voice softened a little. ‘Bear with me on this, Evanlyn. I know you’re anxious about Horace.’

  Will was a little puzzled by Halt’s words. ‘No more anxious than the rest of us, surely?’ he said.

  Halt turned away and raised his eyebrows as his gaze met Selethen’s. Sometimes, he thought, his former apprentice could be remarkably slow on the uptake. He saw the Arridi’s slow nod of understanding.

  ‘I think we all agree, Halt,’ Selethen said. ‘We should keep a low profile until we know the situation here. And you Rangers are very good at that.’ He smiled at Evanlyn. ‘I’m sure the rest of us will have the chance to play a role in due course, Princess.’

  Evanlyn gave in. She was disappointed, but she could see that Halt’s decision made sense. A large party of foreigners arriving and asking questions would draw attention. And that could lead to the locals being reluctant to give out any information at all. If there had in fact been a rebellion against the Emperor, the situation could be extremely touchy in Iwanai.

  ‘You’re right, Halt,’ she said and he nodded acknowledgement of her backing down.

  ‘Nice to hear someone else saying that for a change,’ Will said cheerfully. ‘Seems I’ve said those words an awful lot in my time.’

  Halt turned a bleak gaze on him. ‘And you’ve always been correct.’

  Will shrugged and grinned at Evanlyn. She was reconciled now to the plan and she smiled back at him. The most important thing, she realised, was to find out where Horace had gone. It didn’t really matter who found that out, as long as they did.

  Nihon-Jan sailors leaned on the railings of the ships to either side of them as Wolfwill nosed carefully into a berth in Iwanai harbour. More than one of them cast suspicious glances over the length of the wolfship. Her lines told them that she wasn’t a trading vessel – the hull was too narrow to allow for any large amount of storage below decks. She was a fighting ship, they sensed. A raider. And as such, she would be treated with reserve. Several captains, watching her slide in towards the mole, took note of the wolf figurehead at her prow. Appropriate, they thought, and resolved to keep a close watch on her all the time she was in port.

 

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