The emperor of nihon ja, p.26
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       The Emperor of Nihon-Ja, p.26

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

  ‘Yes. Yes. Obviously. But what do those words mean?’

  Alyss coughed and Evanlyn turned to her. The Courier was repressing a smile. ‘They mean “Big Lake”,’ she said.

  Eiko nodded cheerfully and Evanlyn felt her cheeks colouring. ‘Oh, of course. Logical, I suppose.’

  ‘The Nihon-Jan have a penchant for literal place names, I’ve noticed,’ Alyss told her. Then, briskly, she dusted her hands off and stooped to the kayak, shoving it fully into the shallow water. ‘Let’s check the boat for leaks.’

  The water was only a few centimetres deep at the shore but the bank shelved steeply so that, after two or three metres, it was half a metre deep. From there, it rapidly became deeper and the sand and stone bottom, easily visible close in, became lost from sight. Alyss waded in, reacting to the shock of the icy water.

  ‘Ow! That’s cold! Make sure you don’t tip us over, Evanlyn.’

  ‘Make sure yourself,’ Evanlyn replied crisply. But secretly, she knew that if anyone were going to tip the boat, it would be her. She went to step into the water to help, but Alyss waved her back.

  ‘Eiko can help me. He’s heavier.’ She turned to the Kikori and gestured to the boat. ‘Push it down as far as you can, please, Eiko.’

  He nodded his understanding and waded in beside her. Reaching down, he braced his hands against the gunwale ribs and leaned his weight onto the boat. The hull sank deeper into the water under his weight and Alyss leaned in, searching up and down its length for any sign of water coming in. But the tight oilskin created an excellent water-tight barrier and there was no sign of a leak.

  ‘That’s great,’ Alyss said, straightening. She beckoned to Evanlyn. ‘Okay, grab your paddle and come and get aboard. Take the front seat. That way I can keep an eye on you.’

  Eiko moved quickly towards Evanlyn, gesturing to indicate that he would lift her into the boat, but Alyss stopped him.

  ‘No, Eiko. Better if she gets used to doing it without help. Getting in can be a little tricky,’ she explained to Evanlyn. The other girl nodded and, paddle in hand, waded into the water. She, too, caught her breath at the icy touch of the lake.

  ‘I can see why you don’t want to tip over in this.’ Moving awkwardly, she raised one dripping wet foot and went to step over the kayak, planning to straddle it. But Alyss stopped her.

  ‘Not that way. Turn your back to it and get your behind in first. Sit in sideways with your backside on the seat. That gets the greater part of your body weight inside the boat, with only your legs to follow.’

  Carefully, Evanlyn lowered herself backwards onto the wooden seat. The boat tipped and she tensed nervously. But Alyss held it steady.

  ‘I’ve got it. Loosen up. Now lift your feet and swing them into the boat. Put them on the ribs or the footrest in front of your seat, not the oilskin,’ she added. ‘Don’t ever put weight on that.’

  Evanlyn looked up at her. ‘Any other blindingly obvious advice you’ve got for me?’ she asked sarcastically and Alyss shrugged.

  ‘Never hurts to be sure,’ she said. She waited as Evanlyn swung her legs and feet into the boat, settling herself in place. Then Alyss released her hold on the stern and moved to the side of the kayak. Eiko stepped forward to hold the boat steady as she had been doing but she waved him away.

  ‘I’m fine,’ she said. She handed her paddle to Evanlyn, who was waiting, a little anxiously. ‘Evanlyn, the boat is going to rock when I get in. Boats do that. It’s perfectly normal. Don’t try to counteract it. It’ll recover itself. Just keep your weight central and keep your body loose, okay?’

  Evanlyn, tense as a fiddle string, nodded acknowledgement.

  Moving quickly and smoothly, Alyss settled her weight into the rear seat and swung her legs inboard. The boat rocked under her weight – violently, it seemed to Evanlyn, who couldn’t help emitting a small squawk of alarm. Then it steadied and she realised they were floating, drifting clear of the bank and the spot where Eiko stood, knee deep in the water. He grinned encouragingly at them and waved. The tiny wavelets made a constant pok-pok sound against the tight skin of the kayak and, for the second time that day, Evanlyn let go a breath she hadn’t realised she was holding.

  ‘Okay, hand me that paddle,’ she heard Alyss say and she turned awkwardly to hand the paddle back to her companion. As she did so, the boat lurched and she instantly tensed up once more, turning quickly back to face the bow.

  ‘Relax,’ Alyss told her. ‘Just go with it – the way you would on a horse. If you suddenly go rigid, you’ll find it harder to keep balanced and relaxed. Now let’s try with that paddle again. And see if you can avoid dropping it overboard.’

  This time, Evanlyn slid the paddle behind her without turning. She heard a slight grunt of pain as the blade caught Alyss in the ribs.

  ‘Thank you for that,’ the Courier said.

  ‘Sorry,’ Evanlyn replied. She hated the feeling of being out of control.

  ‘Now, let’s get this boat moving,’ Alyss told her. ‘Left side first. Paddle smoothly and slowly. Don’t try to do too much. Above all, try not to throw water all over me. On my count.’

  Evanlyn raised the unfamiliar paddle, waiting for Alyss to call time.

  ‘All right…left side first. One…and two…One…and two…that’s good. Keep it going. Nice…and smooth. One and…Ow, damn it! If you splash me again I’ll throw you overboard. Now be careful!’

  Which, Evanlyn thought, was no way to speak to the Crown Princess of Araluen.

  ‘They’re moving well,’ Horace said as the fifty Kikori trainees, in two extended ranks, advanced at a steady jog across the drill field.

  Selethen shouted a command and the men at the left-hand end of each rank stopped in place, still jogging in time, and turned ninety degrees to their left. The two lines went with them, those on the outer end of the arc having to move faster than the ones closer to the pivoting point. For a few seconds, the ranks wavered and curved, losing their straight-edge precision. Then the outer third of each line came back into position and the ranks were properly formed again. As soon as they were, another command from Selethen set the fifty men jogging forward once more, now moving at ninety degrees to their original path. The entire evolution took less than thirty seconds.

  Will hadn’t answered. He had been watching the manoeuvre carefully, looking for any signs of sloppiness or lack of precision. There had been none that he could see. Now he looked up at his friend and grinned in reply.

  ‘Yes. Their co-ordination is first-rate.’

  ‘I see you’ve got more weapons for them now,’ Horace remarked. The entire front rank was now equipped with the big, rectangular shields and crude javelins. Each man in the fifty wore several of the short stabbing weapons at his side.

  ‘They’ve all got stabbing swords now. Most of them have made their own by cutting down their spears. And the wood and metal workers are delivering new shields and javelins all the time. Soon we’ll have enough to equip a full hyaku.’

  ‘Hyaku?’ Horace asked.

  ‘It’s Nihon-Jan for “one hundred”. That’s the standard Toscan fighting formation – one hundred men in a group. They call it a century – three ranks of thirty-three men each plus a commander.’

  ‘And how many of these hyakus do you plan on having?’

  ‘I figure two. It’d be nice to have more but we just don’t have the men. And Halt says a small force, properly trained and disciplined, can be very effective.’

  ‘That makes sense,’ Horace said.

  The troop halted now and those in the front rank passed their javelins back to the men behind them. ‘We share what we have,’ Will explained to Horace. ‘Since so much of the training depends on moving and turning as one unit, it doesn’t matter if not everyone is armed yet.’

  As the troops waited, twenty of their fellow trainees ran onto the drill field, and placed dummy warrior figures in a line facing them, about fifty metres away. Once that was done, they hurried from the field, and Selethen g
ave the order for his troops to advance once more.

  ‘Kamé!’ Selethen shouted. Instantly, the front rank raised their shields above head height, while the second rank mimed holding shields horizontally to form a roof. Thus protected, they continued their steady advance, boots tramping in unison on the packed ground. After a few seconds, Selethen called another order and their shields, real and imaginary, returned to the normal marching position. The dummy enemy soldiers were now a mere forty metres away.

  Another order from Selethen saw the front rank continue to march while the second rank halted and drew back their javelins. As one, on command, they hurled the weapons over their marching comrades, sending them arcing up and over to come smashing down into the line of fascines forty metres away. Then they marched in double-time to regain their position behind the front rank. Half of the fascines had been struck by javelins. Some were spilled over on their sides, while others leaned drunkenly, supported by the heavy javelin shafts that now sagged to the ground.

  Selethen upped the tempo and the entire fifty moved forward at a steady jog, stabbing blades flickering menacingly in the narrow gaps between the shields. As the front rank reached the ‘enemy’ line, the second rank instantly closed up tight behind them, shoving and adding their weight to the impetus of the leading rank.

  Finally, Selethen called a halt to the drill and the trainees relaxed, grounding their shields. The rear rank moved to collect the javelins.

  ‘Selethen’s doing a good job,’ Horace said, as the tall Arridi moved among the men, making comments to them, encouraging some, praising others, offering words of advice and correction where needed. ‘Will he command both hyakus?’

  ‘No,’ Will replied. ‘They need to work independently. That’s something I wanted to talk to you about. Will you take command of one of them?’

  ‘Me?’ Horace said, a little surprised. ‘I assumed you’d want to command one of them. After all, it’s your idea.’ But Will was shaking his head.

  ‘We need two good battlefield commanders,’ he said. ‘You’re better at that than I am. Halt and I can stand off and keep an overall view of things. We’ll keep Shigeru’s Senshi back as a reserve and send them in wherever they’re needed.’

  Horace couldn’t help a grin forming. ‘Ah, you Rangers,’ he said. ‘You love to be the puppetmasters, don’t you?’

  Will hesitated, about to deny the joking accusation. Then he spread his hands in defeat.

  ‘Well, yes. Actually, we do. But also, we’re better suited to long-distance fighting. You’re the close combat expert.’

  Horace had to admit that the potentially devastating effect of Will’s and Halt’s archery would be a valuable resource to have in reserve.

  ‘I’d be honoured to command one of the hyakus,’ he said. ‘I’ve been feeling pretty useless lately, sitting around in my cabin doing nothing.’ He paused as a thought struck him. ‘I’ll have to learn all the commands and drills.’

  ‘That won’t take you long. We’ve kept it all pretty simple – no insult intended. It’s something Halt always says: Do a few simple things really well, instead of a lot of complicated manoeuvres that can go wrong in the heat of battle. You’ll pick it all up in a day or so. And with you and Selethen both working the men, we’ll get them trained in half the time.’

  Horace nodded. The thought of having something constructive to do was a satisfying one. After the tension and danger of the flight through the mountains, the past few weeks of inactivity while his injured ribs healed had left him feeling stale and empty. Now, he felt a sense of purpose once more. He slapped the hilt of his sword and frowned as he encountered the unfamiliar shape of the katana that he now wore.

  ‘I’ll have to do something about this sword,’ he said. ‘After years of training with an Araluan cavalry sword, this Nihon-Jan katana just doesn’t feel right.’

  The opportunity to do so came sooner than he expected. After spending several more hours with Will and Selethen, taking notes of the drills and commands that he would need to learn, Horace returned to his cabin that afternoon. One of Shigeru’s retinue brought him food and hot tea and as he sat down to enjoy the meal, the man bowed.

  ‘Kurokuma, his excellency requests that once you have eaten you should visit his cabin.’

  Horace went to rise immediately but the man waved him back down.

  ‘No! No! His excellency said you should enjoy your meal first. He will welcome you whenever it is convenient to you.’

  Smiling, Horace acknowledged the message and sat down again. With most rulers, he knew, the words ‘whenever it is convenient for you’ meant ‘right now, and five minutes ago if you can make it’. With Shigeru, he had come to learn, they meant exactly what they said. The Emperor set no store in having his people drop everything to attend him on a whim. It was one of the reasons why his immediate followers loved him as much as they did.

  Even so, an Emperor was an Emperor and Horace didn’t waste any undue time finishing his meal. Once he had eaten and washed, he donned his warm outer robe, tied the sash around it and pushed the katana in its scabbard through the sash. His boots were sitting ready on the sheltered step outside the cabin and he donned them and set out through the falling snow. How different it all was to Araluen, he thought. And yet, in so many ways, it was the same. This little encampment in the mountains reflected many of the values he had learned in his home kingdom. Friendship and comradeship, loyalty to a thoughtful and considerate ruler. And, he reflected sadly, the ever-present problem of those who would usurp that ruler and seize power for themselves.

  His boots crunched in the dry snow as he made his way to Shigeru’s cabin. It was somewhat grander than the others the Kikori had built. Shigeru had protested at this, saying he needed nothing more than his companions had. But the Kikori were scandalised by such a suggestion. He was their Emperor and this was their opportunity to show him how much they revered and respected him. Consequently, Shigeru’s cabin had a covered porch and two interior rooms – one large room where he could meet with his advisers and a smaller room where he could retire in privacy.

  One of the Senshi stood guard on the porch. He smiled and bowed in greeting as he saw Horace approaching through the curtain of falling snow.

  ‘Kurokuma! Good afternoon. His excellency is expecting you.’

  Pausing only to respond to the man’s greeting and to take off his snow-encrusted boots, Horace stooped and entered through the low doorway. Shigeru was seated, cross-legged, on a reed mat on the floor. A small, but brightly glowing, charcoal brazier proved a welcome source of warmth in the room. The Emperor had a fine brush pen in his hand and a frame holding a stretched piece of rice paper across his knee. He was writing the same Nihon-Jan ideogram on the paper, over and over again, striving each time for a better rendition of the loops and careful swirls. He looked up and smiled.

  ‘Ah, Kurokuma, please sit with me.’ He gestured towards a low stool.

  Horace bowed, then sat. He knew it was normally a breach of etiquette to sit in a higher position than the Emperor. But Shigeru was aware that Araluans did not spend years sitting with their legs tucked up under them and, as a consequence, their knees tended to burn in protest after some minutes in that position. It was another example of the man’s consideration for his subordinates, Horace thought.

  ‘Would you like tea, Kurokuma?’

  Horace, of course, had just had tea. But he knew there was a rhythm and etiquette to Nihon-Jan society. To refuse would jar that rhythm.

  ‘Thank you, your excellency,’ he said, bowing from his sitting position. He felt a little silly, sitting on his low stool with his knees drawn up in front of him – rather like a giant in a children’s playroom. Shigeru, by contrast, looked dignified and balanced, sitting back on his heels.

  A servant emerged from the inner room and served them both tea. Horace sipped his gratefully. Even the short walk from his cabin to Shigeru’s had exposed him to the shivering cold in the valley and he felt the heat of the tea
flood through his body.

  ‘You wished to see me, your excellency?’ He had a vague notion that George would have disapproved of such a blunt opening. Probably, he should have commented on the Emperor’s calligraphy, admiring it while Shigeru modestly pointed out its mistakes and shortcomings. But he was intrigued to learn the reason for the summons. Since the battle at the palisade, a certain lack of activity had overcome them. There was no urgent need each day for Shigeru to consult with his advisers and the Emperor had withdrawn into himself a little. Horace knew that Shukin’s death weighed heavily on the Emperor and it was highly likely that Shigeru, sensitive and kindly as he was, also felt a deep responsibility for the fate of those who had rallied to his aid – the Kikori, his own Senshi and the group of foreigners who had arrived and offered their service. It would be little wonder if the Emperor had retreated out of a sense of depression.

  These thoughts all went through Horace’s mind. But the Emperor showed no sign of doubt or uncertainty. His expression was calm and his demeanour was serene. He smiled now at the young man sitting before him, hands on his knees.

  ‘You have been busy, Kurokuma?’ he asked.

  Horace shrugged. ‘Not really, excellency. There has been little to do. But that will change. I have been asked to take command of one of the hyaku.’

  ‘Ah, yes. The troops your friend Wirru-san is training,’ Shigeru said. ‘Tell me, do you think the Kikori will stand a chance against Arisaka’s Senshi?’

  Horace hesitated. He recalled his thoughts at the drill field – how the Kikori appeared as an inexorable force, advancing across the cleared ground behind the deadly shower of javelins.

  ‘I think they could, your excellency,’ he said. ‘So long as they believe in themselves and keep their nerve. But all of Will’s training and special tactics will come to nothing if the Kikori don’t believe they can win.’

  ‘Do they believe this?’

  Horace shook his head. ‘Perhaps not now. But they will. We’ll make them believe it. It’s up to us to build that spirit in them.’

 

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