The emperor of nihon ja, p.3
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       The Emperor of Nihon-Ja, p.3

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

  Selethen fingered his chin thoughtfully. His left hand had strayed unconsciously to the hilt of his sabre as he watched. Sapristi glanced at him, pleased to see that the demonstration had had a sobering effect on the Arridi leader. It didn’t hurt, Sapristi thought, for Toscana’s new ally to appreciate the might of the Toscan legions.

  ‘Let’s go and take a look at the results,’ Sapristi said. He rose and led the way down from the reviewing platform to the parade ground, where the two forces, the demonstration now complete, had drawn apart. The legionnaires still stood in their measured rows. The attacking force milled about in a loose group.

  ‘We had the practice swords dipped in fresh paint, so we could measure results,’ Sapristi told them. He led the way to the enemy group. As they drew closer, Halt and Will could see arms, legs, torsos, necks spattered with red blotches. The marks were testimony to the number of times the legionnaires’ wooden swords had found their mark.

  The attackers’ longer swords had been coated with white paint. Looking now, the Araluans could see only occasional evidence that these swords had struck home. There were criss-cross patterns and random splotches of white on the shields and some of the brass helmets of the legionnaires, but the majority of men in the century were unscathed.

  ‘Very effective,’ Selethen told the general. ‘Very effective indeed.’ Already, his agile mind was at work, figuring ways to counteract a force of heavy infantry such as this.

  Halt was obviously having similar thoughts. ‘Of course, you’ve chosen perfect conditions for heavy infantry here,’ he said, sweeping an arm around the flat, open parade ground. ‘In more constricted country, like forest land, you wouldn’t be able to manoeuvre so efficiently.’

  Sapristi nodded in acknowledgement. ‘True,’ he said. ‘But we choose our battlefields and let the enemy come to us. If they don’t, we simply invade their lands. Sooner or later, they have to face us in battle.’

  Will had wandered away from the group and was studying one of the javelins. It was a crude weapon, he saw. The square wooden shaft was only roughly shaped – just a very ordinary, minimally dressed piece of hardwood. The point was equally utilitarian. It was a thick rod of soft iron, about half a metre long, hammered flat at the end and sharpened into a barbed point. A groove had been cut down one side of the shaft and the head had been slotted into it and bound in place with brass wire.

  Sapristi saw him looking at it and walked over to join him.

  ‘They’re not pretty,’ he said. ‘But they work. And they’re easy and quick to make. In fact, the soldiers can make their own, at a pinch. We can turn out thousands of these in a week. And you’ve seen how effective they can be.’ He indicated the rows of smashed and splintered targets.

  ‘It’s bent,’ Will said critically, running his hand along the distorted iron head.

  ‘And it can be straightened easily and used again,’ the general told him. ‘But that’s actually an advantage. Imagine one of these hitting an enemy’s shield. It penetrates, and the barb holds it in place. Then the head bends, so that the handle is dragging on the ground. Try fighting effectively with nearly two metres of iron and wood dragging from your shield. I assure you, it’s not an easy thing to do.’

  Will shook his head admiringly. ‘It’s all very practical, isn’t it?’

  ‘It’s a logical solution to the problem of creating a large and effective fighting force,’ Sapristi told him. ‘If you pitted any of these legionnaires in a one-on-one battle against a professional warrior, they would probably lose. But give me a hundred unskilled men to drill for six months and I’ll back them against an equal number of warriors who’ve been training in individual combat skills all their lives.’

  ‘So it’s the system that’s successful, not the individual?’ Will said.

  ‘Exactly,’ Sapristi told him. ‘And so far, nobody has come up with a way to defeat our system in open battle.’

  ‘How would you do it?’ Halt asked Selethen that night. The negotiations had been finalised, agreed, signed and witnessed. There had been an official banquet to celebrate the fact, with speeches and compliments on all sides. Now Selethen and the Araluan party were relaxing in the Araluans’ quarters. It would be their last night together as the Wakir was due to leave early the following morning. Selethen had brought some of the trade gift kafay with him and he, Will and Halt were all savouring the brew. Nobody, Will thought, made coffee quite as well as the Arridi.

  Alyss sat by the fireplace, smiling at the three of them. She liked coffee, but for Rangers, and apparently the Arridi, coffee drinking was close to a religious experience. She contented herself with a goblet of fresh, citrus-tasting sherbet.

  ‘Simple,’ said Selethen. ‘Never let them choose the conditions. As Sapristi said, they’ve never been defeated in open battle. So you need fight a more fluid action against them. Catch them when they’re on the move and in file. Hit them on the flanks with quick raids, before they can go into their defensive formation. Or use artillery against them. That rigid formation makes for a very compact target. Hit it with heavy bolts from a mangonel or rocks from catapults and you’d start to punch holes in it. Once it loses cohesion, it’s not so formidable.’

  Halt was nodding. ‘I was thinking the same,’ he said. ‘Never confront them head-on. If you could get a force of archers behind them without their realising it, their tortoise formation would be vulnerable.

  ‘But of course,’ he continued, ‘they rely on their enemies’ sense of outrage when they invade a country. Very few armies will have the patience to carry out a running battle, harassing and weakening them over a period. Very few leaders would be able to convince their followers that this was the best way. National pride would force most to confront them, to try to force them back across the border.’

  ‘And we saw what happens when you confront them,’ Will said. ‘Those javelins were effective.’ Both the older men nodded.

  ‘Limited range, however,’ Selethen said. ‘No more than thirty or forty metres.’

  ‘But quite deadly at that range,’ Halt said, agreeing with Will.

  ‘It seems to me,’ said Alyss cheerfully, ‘that the best course to take would be one of negotiation. Negotiate with them rather than fight them. Use diplomacy, not weapons.’

  ‘Spoken like a true diplomat,’ Halt said, giving her one of his rare smiles. He was fond of Alyss, and her bond with Will made him even more inclined to like her. She bowed her head in mock modesty. ‘But what if diplomacy fails?’

  Alyss rose to the challenge without hesitation. ‘Then you can always resort to bribery,’ she said. ‘A little gold in the right hands can accomplish more than a forest of swords.’ Her eyes twinkled as she said it.

  Selethen shook his head in admiration. ‘Your Araluan women would fit in well in my country,’ he said. ‘Lady Alyss’s grasp of the skills of negotiation is first class.’

  ‘I recall you weren’t quite so enthusiastic about Princess Evanlyn’s negotiating skills,’ Halt said.

  ‘I have to admit I met my match there,’ he said ruefully. In his previous encounter with Araluans, he had tried to bamboozle Evanlyn in their haggling over a ransom payment for Oberjarl Erak. The princess had remained totally un-bamboozled and had very neatly outwitted him.

  Alyss frowned slightly at the mention of Evanlyn’s name. She was not one of the princess’s greatest admirers. However, she recovered quickly and smiled again.

  ‘Women are good negotiators,’ she said. ‘We prefer to leave all the sweaty, unpleasant details of battle to people like your –’

  She was interrupted by a discreet knock at the door. Since this was a diplomatic mission, she was in fact the leader of the Araluan party. ‘Come in,’ she called in reply, then added in a lower voice to the others, ‘I wonder what’s happened? After all, it’s a little late for callers.’

  The door opened to admit one of her servants. The man glanced nervously around. He realised he was interrupting a conversation between the head of
the mission, two Rangers and the most high-ranking representative of the Arridi party.

  ‘My apologies for interrupting, Lady Alyss,’ he began uncertainly.

  She reassured him with a wave of her hand. ‘It’s perfectly all right, Edmund. I assume it’s important?’

  The servant swallowed nervously. ‘You could say so, my lady. The Crown Princess Cassandra has arrived and she wants to see you all.’

  Nihon-Ja

  The wind had picked up since they had left the Emperor’s summer lodge the previous day. Now it was keening through the valley as they rode carefully down the narrow track that angled down one side, and gusting strongly as it was funnelled between the constricting hills that formed the valley. The trees around them seemed to have adopted a permanent lean to one side, so constant was the force of the wind. Horace pulled his sheepskin collar a little higher around his ears and nestled gratefully into its warm depths.

  He glanced up. The sky was a brilliant ice blue, but already heavy grey clouds were scudding across it, sending bands of shadow flitting silently across the landscape below. To the south, he could see a dark line of solid cloud. He estimated that it would be upon them by early afternoon and it would probably bring rain with it. He considered suggesting that they might make camp for the day before the rain added its force to the wind. There was no need to rush their journey – the port of Iwanai was within easy riding distance – and he didn’t relish the idea of pitching tents in a driving rainstorm. Better to get them up while the party was still dry and shelter inside them through the deteriorating weather.

  The trail they were following levelled and widened for a hundred metres or so, so Horace urged his horse alongside that of the Emperor, who was riding immediately before him. Shigeru, huddled deep in his own fur robes, sensed the presence beside him and looked around. He grimaced at the racing clouds overhead and gave a small shrug.

  Horace pulled his collar down to speak, feeling the icy bite of the wind on his face as he did so.

  ‘Do you think it will snow?’ he called, pitching his voice above the constant battering of the wind.

  Shigeru looked at the sky again and shook his head. ‘It’s a little early in the year. Perhaps in a week or two we’ll get a few light falls. Then, in a month, the real snow will begin. But we’ll be far away from here by then. Once we’re out of the mountains, the weather won’t be so severe.’ He glanced again at the ominous cloud front.

  ‘Plenty of rain there, however,’ he continued cheerfully.

  Horace grinned. Very little seemed to faze Shigeru. Many rulers would have spent the morning complaining loudly about the cold and the discomfort, as if their complaints would actually serve to alleviate the situation and as if their attendants should be able to do something about it. Not the Emperor. He accepted the situation, knowing that he could do nothing to change the weather. Best to endure it without making life more difficult for those around him.

  ‘Perhaps we should make camp early,’ Horace suggested.

  Shigeru was about to reply when a cry from one of their point riders caught their attention.

  In addition to a few household servants – and of course Horace and George – Shigeru was travelling with a relatively small screen of bodyguards. Only a dozen Senshi warriors, under the command of Shukin, the Emperor’s cousin, had accompanied him to the summer lodge. Again, Horace thought, it was a measure of the man himself. Shigeru had little cause to fear attack. He was popular with the common people. They knew he was working to improve their lot and they loved him for it. Previous emperors had not enjoyed such esteem and it had always been necessary for them to surround themselves with large parties of armed men when they travelled through the countryside.

  One of the Senshi had been posted well ahead of the group as a point rider. Another three were grouped some ten metres ahead of Horace and the Emperor. The remainder were stationed behind. On this narrow trail, there was no room for outriders on their flank, although they would be deployed once the party reached the valley floor.

  The rider who had cried out now held up his hand, bringing the main party to a halt. Horace heard a clatter of hooves and a warning call from behind him. Glancing back, he edged his horse to one side to allow Shukin and four of the guards to edge past him. The Emperor did the same.

  ‘What’s the problem?’ Shigeru asked Shukin, as the escort leader trotted past. Out of deference to Horace, and to avoid the need for translation, he spoke the common language, not Nihon-Jan.

  ‘I don’t know, cousin,’ Shukin replied. ‘Kaeko-san has seen something. I’ll report once I’ve spoken to him. Please wait here.’

  He glanced over his shoulder, reassuring himself that the four men remaining in the rearguard had moved up to form a closer screen, then rode on.

  Without conscious thought, Horace’s left hand dropped to his scabbard, angling it slightly forward so that, if the need arose for him to draw his sword, he could do so quickly. His trademark round shield was still slung on his back. No need to change that at the moment. He could shrug it round into position in a second or two if required.

  Shigeru’s horse shifted its feet nervously as the guards rode past. The Emperor patted its neck and spoke soothingly to it and the horse settled. Then the Emperor slumped more comfortably in the saddle, looked at Horace and shrugged.

  ‘I imagine we’ll hear what’s going on in a moment or two,’ he said. His manner indicated that he was sure this was a false alarm, that his guards were being over-cautious. He gazed after Shukin as his cousin reined in beside the Senshi warrior who had been riding point. There was a brief discussion, then both Shigeru and Horace saw Kaeko pointing to something further down the valley, where the trail zigzagged back to accommodate the steep slope of the hillside.

  Shukin trotted back to report.

  ‘There’s a rider coming. It’s one of your household staff, cousin. And he seems in a hurry.’

  Shigeru frowned. It would take a lot of bring one of his official staff out in this sort of weather.

  George edged his horse up to Horace now. George was a trained scribe and attorney and he had made a comprehensive study of the ways of the Nihon-Jan. This was not his first trip to the country. Because of his knowledge of local matters, he had been sent on this trip with Horace to observe and advise the young warrior on matters of protocol, and to update a dictionary of the Nihon-Jan language that he had written two years ago.

  George could be a little stuffy and full of himself at times but he was essentially good-hearted and he had provided excellent advice to Horace on the journey. Horace had been glad to have him along.

  ‘Why are we stopping?’ he asked.

  Horace jerked a thumb further along the trail. ‘There’s a rider. A messenger, probably. Best if we wait for him to come to us.’

  ‘A messenger? Who is it? Is Lord Shigeru expecting a message? Do we know what it’s about?’ George’s questions came tumbling out before Horace had a chance to begin answering.

  Horace shook his head and smiled at his old childhood companion. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know. And…I don’t know,’ he said. He saw George’s shoulders relax as he realised his questions had been unreasonable. ‘I imagine we’ll find out when he comes up to us.’

  ‘Of course. Silly of me,’ George said. He sounded genuinely aggrieved that he had let his mask of professional calm slip the way it had.

  ‘Don’t let it bother you,’ Horace said, then he couldn’t help parroting one of George’s oft-repeated catch cries. ‘After all, if you don’t ask, you’ll never learn.’

  George had the grace to allow a thin smile. He never liked being the object of jokes. He felt it undermined his dignity.

  ‘Yes, yes. Quite so, Sir Horace.’ His slight emphasis on Horace’s title was evidence that he felt Horace’s sally had been unnecessary.

  Horace shrugged to himself. Live with it, George, he thought.

  The rattle of galloping hooves was closer now. The rider had reached the sharp elb
ow turn in the trail and was heading up the last hundred metres or so towards them. A call from Shukin saw the four warriors ahead of the party make room on the trail to let the new arrival through.

  He drew level with the Emperor and Shukin and did his best to bow from the saddle. That was odd, thought Horace. He’d been around Shigeru long enough to know that the proper etiquette called for the rider to dismount and then kneel. The message, whatever it is, must be urgent.

  George had noticed the breach of normal behaviour as well. ‘Something’s gone wrong,’ he said quietly.

  The messenger was speaking rapidly to Shigeru now. He kept his voice low so that those around the Emperor couldn’t hear him. Horace saw the Emperor and his cousin both stiffen in their saddles and sit a little straighter. Whatever the message, it had taken them by surprise. And the surprise seemed to be an unpleasant one. Shigeru halted the messenger’s flow with a quick word and turned in the saddle to beckon them forward.

  Quickly, Horace and George trotted their horses up to join the small group.

  ‘Tell us again,’ Shigeru said. ‘But speak the common tongue so that Or’ss-san can understand.’

  Horace nodded his thanks to Shigeru. Then the messenger spoke again. In spite of his haste in arriving here, he spoke calmly and clearly.

  ‘Lord Shigeru, Or’ss-san and George-san, there has been a revolt in Ito. A revolt against the Emperor.’

  Nihon-Ja

  Horace frowned, puzzled. George evidently felt the same. He leaned forward to question the messenger.

  ‘But why would the people turn on their Emperor?’ he asked. ‘They love Lord Shigeru.’

  It wasn’t idle flattery or the sort of sycophancy that you might expect to hear around a ruler. Both Horace and George had seen ample evidence of Shigeru’s popularity as they had travelled north with him from the palace. But Shigeru was shaking his head at them, a look of immense sadness on his normally cheerful features.

 
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