The emperor of nihon ja, p.2
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       The Emperor of Nihon-Ja, p.2

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

  ‘For the purpose of the demonstration,’ Sapristi said, ‘we’ll assume that the enemy has reached this position in their advance. We don’t use real warriors for this part of the exercise. It’s too costly, and we need our auxiliaries.’

  The orderlies, many of them glancing nervously at the still ranks of legionnaires, ran from the field once their targets were in position.

  Will leaned forward eagerly. ‘What happens now, General?’

  Sapristi allowed himself a small smile.

  ‘Watch and see,’ he said.

  Nihon-Ja, some months earlier

  Horace slid the screen to one side, grimacing slightly as he eased the door open. By now, he had learned to handle these light wood and paper structures carefully. In his first week in Nihon-Ja he had destroyed several sliding panels. He was used to doors that were heavy and needed some effort to get them moving. His hosts were always quick to apologise and to assure him that the workmanship must have been faulty but he knew the real reason was his own clumsiness. Sometimes he felt like a blind bear in a porcelain factory.

  Emperor Shigeru looked up at the tall Araluan warrior, noticing the extreme care he took with the door, and smiled in genuine amusement.

  ‘Ah, Or’ss-san,’ he said, ‘you are most considerate to spare our flimsy door from destruction.’

  Horace shook his head. ‘Your excellency is too kind.’ He bowed. George – an old acquaintance of Horace’s from his days in the Ward at Redmont and his protocol adviser on this journey – had impressed upon him that this was not done out of any sense of self-abasement. The Nihon-Jan bowed to each other routinely, as a mark of mutual respect. In general, the depth of the bow from both sides was the same. However, George had added, it was politic to bow much deeper to the Emperor than you might expect him to bow to you. Horace had no problem with the custom. He found Shigeru to be a fascinating and gracious host, well worthy of deference. In some ways, he reminded Horace of King Duncan – a man for whom Horace had the deepest respect.

  The Emperor was a small man, much shorter than Horace. It was difficult to estimate his age. The Nihon-Jan all seemed much younger than they really were. Shigeru’s hair was tinged with grey, so Horace guessed that he must be in his fifties. But small as he might be, he was amazingly fit and possessed a deceptive wiry strength. He also had a surprisingly deep voice and a booming laugh when he was amused, which was often.

  Shigeru clicked his tongue lightly as a signal that the young man didn’t need to hold the position any longer. As Horace straightened up, the Emperor bowed in reply. He liked the muscular young warrior and he had enjoyed having him as a guest.

  In training sessions with some of the leading Nihon-Jan warriors, Shigeru had seen that Horace was highly skilled with the weapons of his own country – the sword, longer and heavier than the curved Nihon-Jan katana, and the round shield that he used so effectively. Yet the young man showed no sense of arrogance and had been keen to study and compliment the techniques of the Nihon-Jan swordsmen.

  That was the purpose of Horace’s mission. As a Swordmaster in Araluen, and as a potential Battlemaster, it made sense that Horace should be familiar with as wide a range of fighting techniques as possible. It was for that reason that Duncan had despatched him on this military mission. In addition, Duncan could see that Horace was becoming bored. After the heady excitement of his clash with the Outsiders in company with Will and Halt, it was easy for the young man to become impatient with the humdrum routine of life at Castle Araluen. Much to the chagrin of Duncan’s daughter, Cassandra, who enjoyed Horace’s company more and more, he had sent him on this fact-finding mission.

  ‘Look at this, Or’ss-san,’ Shigeru said, beckoning him forward.

  Horace smiled. None of the Nihon-Jan had been able to master the pronunciation of his name. He had become used to being addressed as Or’ss-san. After a few early attempts, Shigeru had cheerfully adopted the simplified version. Now he held out his cupped hands to Horace and the young man leaned forward to look.

  There was a perfect yellow flower nestled in the Emperor’s palm. Shigeru shook his head.

  ‘See?’ he said. ‘Here we are, with autumn upon us. This flower should have withered and died weeks ago. But today I found it here in my pebble garden. Is it not a matter for thought and wonder?’

  ‘Indeed it is,’ Horace replied. He realised that he had learned a great deal in his time here – and not all of it about military matters. Shigeru, even with the responsibility of ruling a varied and, in some cases, headstrong group of subjects, could still find time to wonder at the small occasions of beauty to be found in nature. Horace sensed that this ability led to the Emperor’s enjoying a great deal of inner peace and contributed in no small measure to his ability to face and solve problems in a calm and unflustered way.

  Having shown the flower to his guest, the Emperor knelt and returned it to the neatly raked array of black and white pebbles.

  ‘It should remain here,’ he said. ‘This is where its fate decreed that it should be.’

  There were stepping stones through the garden so that the Emperor and his guest could avoid disturbing the symmetry of the raked stones. It was like a stone pond, Horace thought. He was aware that each morning, the Emperor would rake the pebbles into a slightly different pattern. A lesser man might have had servants perform this task, but Shigeru enjoyed doing it himself.

  ‘If everything is done for me,’ he had explained to Horace, ‘how will I ever learn?’

  Now the Emperor rose gracefully to his feet once more.

  ‘I’m afraid your time with us is coming to an end,’ he said.

  Horace nodded. ‘Yes, your excellency. I’ll have to return to Iwanai. Our ship is due there at the end of the week.’

  ‘We’ll be sorry to lose you,’ Shigeru said.

  ‘I’ll be sorry to go,’ Horace replied.

  The Emperor smiled. ‘But not sorry to return home?’

  Horace had to smile in return. ‘No. I’ll be glad to get home. I’ve been away a long time.’

  The Emperor gestured for Horace to follow and they left the pebble garden and entered a perfectly cultivated grove of trees. Once they were off the stepping stones, there was room for them to walk side by side.

  ‘I hope your trip has been worthwhile. Have you learned much while you have been with us?’ Shigeru asked.

  ‘A great deal, your excellency. I’m not sure that your system would suit Araluen, but it is an interesting one.’

  Nihon-Ja drew its warriors from a small, elite upper class, known as the Senshi. They were born to be trained in the art of the sword and began their training from an early age, to the detriment of most other forms of learning. As a result, the Senshi had become an aggressive and warlike sect, with a sense of superiority over the other classes of Nihon-Jan society.

  Shigeru was a Senshi, but he was something of an exception. Naturally, he had trained with the katana since boyhood and he was a competent, if not an expert, warrior. As Emperor, it was expected that he should learn these skills. But he had wider interests – as Horace had just observed – and a compassionate and inquiring side to his nature. He was genuinely concerned for what were held to be the lower classes: the fishermen, farmers and timber workers who were regarded with contempt by the majority of Senshi.

  ‘I’m not sure that we can maintain it as it is for much longer in this country either,’ he told Horace. ‘Or that we should.’

  The young warrior looked sidelong at him. He knew that Shigeru had been working to improve conditions for the lower classes, and to give them a greater voice in how the country was governed. He had also learned that these initiatives were highly unpopular with a significant number of the Senshi.

  ‘The Senshi will resist any change,’ he warned the Emperor and the older man sighed.

  ‘Yes. They will. They like to be in charge. This is why it is forbidden for the common people to carry arms or learn any weapon skills. They far outnumber the Senshi but the Se
nshi make up for their lack of numbers by their skill with weapons and their ferocity in battle. It’s too much to ask untrained fishermen or farmers or timber workers to face such deadly opponents. It has happened in the past, of course, but when the workers did protest, they were cut to pieces.’

  ‘I can imagine,’ Horace said.

  Shigeru stood a little straighter, held his head a little higher. ‘But the Senshi must learn. They must adapt. They cannot continue to treat the people – my people – as inferiors. We need our workers, just as we need our warriors. Without the workers, there would be no food for the Senshi, no timber for their homes, no firewood to heat them or for the forges that create their swords. They must see that everybody contributes and there should be greater equality.’

  Horace pursed his lips. He didn’t want to reply because he sensed that Shigeru was setting himself an impossible task. With the exception of the Emperor’s immediate retainers, the majority of Senshi had shown themselves to be fiercely opposed to any change in the current system – particularly if it gave a greater voice to the lower classes.

  Shigeru sensed the young man’s hesitation. ‘You don’t agree?’ he asked mildly.

  Horace shrugged uncomfortably. ‘I agree,’ he said. ‘But my opinion doesn’t matter. The question is, does Lord Arisaka agree?’

  Horace had met Arisaka in the first week of his visit. He was the overlord of the Shimonseki clan, one of the largest and fiercest groups of Senshi warriors. He was a powerful and influential man and he made no secret of his opinion that the Senshi should remain the dominant class in Nihon-Ja. He was also a Swordmaster, regarded as one of the finest individual warriors in the country. Horace had heard rumours that Arisaka had killed more than twenty men in duels – and even more in the internecine battles that flared from time to time between the clans.

  Shigeru smiled grimly at the mention of the arrogant warlord. ‘Arisaka-san may have to learn to agree to his Emperor’s wishes. After all, he has sworn an oath to me.’

  ‘Then I’m sure he’ll honour that oath,’ Horace said, although he had grave doubts about the matter. As ever, Shigeru saw past the words themselves and recognised the concern in Horace’s voice.

  ‘But I’m being an impolite host,’ he said. ‘We have a little time left together and you should enjoy it – not spend it worrying over the internal politics of Nihon-Ja. Perhaps we can ride together to Iwanai? I’ll have to be leaving here soon to return to Ito myself.’

  They had spent the past week relaxing in the informal atmosphere of the Emperor’s summer lodge, at the foot of the mountains. His principal palace and seat of government was a magnificent walled fortress in the city of Ito, a week’s ride to the south. Their time at the lodge had been pleasant but, as Shigeru had noted earlier, autumn was forcing its way across the land, with its cold and blustery winds, and the summer lodge was not the most comfortable accommodation in cold weather.

  ‘I’d enjoy that,’ Horace said, pleased at the prospect of spending a few more days in Shigeru’s company. He wondered at the bond of respect and affection that he felt for the Emperor. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that Horace had grown up as an orphan, and so he was drawn to Shigeru’s understated strength, gentle wisdom and unfailing good humour. In some ways, the Emperor reminded him of Halt, although his smooth good manners were a marked contrast to the Ranger’s often acerbic nature. He gestured to the carefully cultivated trees around them, their leaves now blazing yellow and orange to herald autumn.

  ‘I should tell George to start making preparations for the trip,’ he said. ‘I’ll leave you to contemplate your trees.’

  Shigeru, in his turn, gazed at the patterns of dark trunks and blazing leaves around him. He loved the peace and solitude in this garden, far away from the self-serving politics of the capital.

  ‘Their beauty will be small recompense for the loss of your company,’ he said smoothly and Horace grinned at him.

  ‘You know, your excellency, I wish I could say stuff like that.’


  A command rang across the parade ground and Will watched the roof of shields disappear as the legionnaires lowered them back to their normal position.

  Then, in response to another command, the second and third ranks took a pace backwards. Each man carried a long javelin in addition to the short sword he wore on his right side. Now the men in the rear rank reversed their grip, turned side on and raised the javelins to the throwing position, right arms extended back, the javelins balanced over their right shoulders, aiming upwards at an angle of about forty degrees.


  Thirty-three right arms came forward, thirty-three right legs stepped into the cast and the flight of javelins arced away towards the wooden targets. They were still on their way when the second rank repeated the action, sending another thirty-three projectiles soaring.

  There was no individual aim – each man simply cast his weapon at the mass of targets in front of him. Will realised that in a real battle, the optimum distance would be decided by the century commander, who was calling the orders.

  The first volley arced up, then pitched down as the heavy iron heads of the javelins overcame the force of the throw. There was a rolling, splintering crash as the javelins hit home. Half of them struck the ground harmlessly. The other half smashed into the light wooden targets, knocking them to the ground. A few seconds later, the second flight arrived, with similar results. Within the space of a few seconds, nearly a third of the hundred targets had been splintered and demolished.

  ‘Interesting,’ Halt said softly. Will glanced quickly at him. Halt’s face was impassive but Will knew him well. Halt was impressed.

  ‘The first blow is often decisive,’ Sapristi told them. ‘Warriors who have never fought our legions before are shaken by this sudden devastation.’

  ‘I can imagine,’ Selethen said. He was watching keenly and Will guessed that he was imagining those lethal javelins crashing into a company of his light cavalry at full gallop.

  ‘But today, for the sake of demonstration, our “enemy” will be overcome with rage and will go on with the attack,’ the general continued.

  As he spoke, the wild mass of enemy warriors moved up to the point where the targets had been savaged and splintered. Now they brandished their swords and charged at the wall of shields.

  The solid crash as they hit the wall carried clearly to the observers. The front rank swayed a little under the initial impact. Then it steadied and held fast. Looking carefully, Will could see that the second row had closed up and were actually pushing their comrades forward, supporting them against the initial impact of the charge.

  The tribesmen’s swords flailed in swinging arcs at the big square shields. But for the most part they were ineffective – and they were getting in each other’s way. By contrast, the short wooden practice swords of the legionnaires began to flicker in and out like serpents’ tongues through narrow gaps in the shield wall, and the observers could hear the shouts of rage and pain from the attackers. The demonstration might be using blunt wooden weapons, but those jabbing impacts would be painful and the legionnaires weren’t holding back.

  ‘How can they see?’ Will asked. The men in the front rank were crouched low behind the barrier formed by their shields.

  ‘They can’t see very well,’ Sapristi told him. ‘They see an occasional leg or arm or torso through the gaps and they stab out at them. After all, a man hit on the thigh or arm is rendered as ineffective as much as a man stabbed through the chest. Our troops just plough forward, jabbing and stabbing at anything they see on the other side of their shields.’

  ‘That’s why your men don’t need to be expert swordsmen,’ Will said.

  The general smiled appreciatively at him. ‘That’s right. They don’t have to learn any advanced techniques of strike and parry and riposte. They just stab and jab with the point of the sword. It’s a simple technique to learn and a few centimetres of the point does just as much damage as a
wide sweeping blow. Now watch as the second rank add their weight to the advance.’

  The perfectly aligned front rank was edging slowly forward, crowding the enemy and forcing them back. Now the second rank suddenly rushed forward, once more adding their weight and impetus to those of the men in front of them, and the extra drive sent the enemy staggering back, buffeted and shoved by the huge shields, jabbed and harassed by the darting short swords. Then, having gained a brief respite, the formation stopped. A long whistle blast rang out and the second rank turned in place so that they stood back-to-back with the front rank. Another signal on the whistle and the front rank pivoted to their left, while the second rank pivoted right. Each pair of men stepped in a small half-circle. Within a few seconds, the front rank had been replaced, all at once, by the fresh men from the second rank. The former front rankers passed back through the third rank, who took their place behind the new front row. The attackers now faced totally fresh opponents, while the former front rank had a chance to recover and redress their losses.

  ‘That’s brilliant,’ Will said.

  Sapristi nodded at him. ‘It’s drill and co-ordination,’ he said. ‘Our men don’t need to be expert swordmasters. That takes a lifetime of training. They need to be drilled and to work as a team. Even a relatively unskilled warrior can be effective in these conditions. And it doesn’t take long to learn.’

  ‘Which is why you can maintain such a large army,’ Halt said.

  Sapristi switched his gaze to the older Ranger. ‘Exactly,’ he replied. Most countries maintained a relatively small standing force of expert warriors as the core of their army, calling on less-skilled men at arms to fill out the numbers in time of war. The Toscans, however, needing to maintain order in their spreading empire, had to have a large permanent army on call at all times.


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