The emperor of nihon ja, p.8
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       The Emperor of Nihon-Ja, p.8

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

  ‘Ten more minutes,’ he said.

  A little while after, they saw the glimmer of lights through the trees, flickering intermittently as branches, moving in the wind, interposed themselves between them. Then, abruptly, they were in a clearing, at the beginning of a small group of thatched-roof cabins. Warm yellow light glowed through the waxed-paper window panes of the houses and smoke curled from several chimneys. The smell of woodsmoke spoke to Horace of warm rooms and hot food and tea. Suddenly, he was eager to dismount.

  As he had the thought, he became aware of movement in his peripheral vision. He looked to the side and saw doors sliding open as dark forms materialised on the wooden porches that fronted the houses.

  The villagers were emerging from their homes to welcome the strangers who had arrived among them.

  At least, Horace hoped they were planning a welcome.

  Wolfwill had been sailing east for two days, and Toscana was far behind them. The strangely rigged ship, with a curving triangular sail whose boom was set at a steep angle to the vertical mast, was swooping eagerly over the small waves, with the wind on her beam. The sail had been trimmed right round until its curved, swelling length was almost parallel to the line of the ship itself. The rigging hummed with the wind of their passage and the deck vibrated slightly underneath their feet. It was an exhilarating feeling, putting Will in mind of one of the low-flying seabirds that accompanied the ship for hours each day, planing easily just above the surface of the sea, with hardly any perceptible movement of their wings.

  The Araluans and Selethen were gathered in the prow, leaving the main deck clear for the sailors to work the mast and sails. With this wind and this speed, there was no need for rowers, although the ship could mount eight long oars a side, in case the wind should drop.

  Even Halt had joined them. Wisely, none of them commented on the fact that this was the first they had seen of him in the past two days. Evanlyn, Alyss and Will knew the delicate nature of Halt’s stomach in the opening hours of any sea journey and they had appraised Selethen of the grey-bearded Ranger’s touchiness on the subject.

  Halt eyed them balefully. They were all being so obvious about not mentioning his sudden reappearance that it was even worse than if they had commented, he thought.

  ‘Oh go on!’ he said. ‘Somebody say something! I know what you’re thinking!’

  ‘It’s good to see you up and about, Halt,’ Selethen said gravely. Of all of them, he was the most capable of keeping a straight face when he said it.

  Halt glared at the others and they quickly chorused their pleasure at seeing him back to his normal self. But he could see the grins they didn’t quite manage to hide. He fixed a glare on Alyss.

  ‘I’m surprised at you, Alyss,’ he said. ‘I expected no better of Will and Evanlyn, of course. Heartless beasts, the pair of them. But you! I thought you had been better trained!’

  Which was a particularly barbed comment, seeing how Alyss’s mentor had been none other than Lady Pauline, Halt’s beloved wife.

  Alyss reached a hand out and touched his arm gently.

  ‘Halt, I am sorry! It’s not funny, you’re right…Shut up, Will.’ This last was directed at Will as he tried, unsuccessfully, to smother a snigger. ‘There is nothing funny about mal de mer. It’s a serious business.’

  Halt was a little taken aback when he heard that. He thought he had nothing more than seasickness. An annoying problem, admittedly, but one that passed within a day or two of being at sea. But Alyss seemed to believe it was something far more exotic. And the more exotic an illness was, the more life-threatening it might be.

  ‘Malldy-mur?’ he said with a twinge of anxiety. ‘What is this Malldy-mur?’

  ‘It’s Gallican,’ Alyss told him. She had used the phrase because she knew how much Halt hated the word ‘seasick’. If one were wise, the word was never even uttered in Halt’s presence. She glanced at the others but they offered no help. None of them would meet her gaze. You got yourself into this, they seemed to be saying. Now you can get yourself out.

  Halt was right, she thought. They were heartless beasts.

  ‘It means…“seasick”,’ she finished weakly.

  ‘I thought you spoke Gallican, Halt,’ said Evanlyn.

  He drew himself upright with some dignity. ‘I do. My Gallican is excellent. But I can’t be expected to memorise every obscure phrase in the language. And Alyss’s pronunciation leaves a little to be desired.’

  The others hastened to agree that no, he certainly couldn’t, and yes, her pronunciation certainly did. Halt looked around them, feeling that honour had been suitably restored. It has to be admitted that, in a sneaking way, while he hated the discomfort of seasickness, once he was over it, he enjoyed the attention and sympathy that it created among attractive young women like Evanlyn and Alyss. And he liked the fact that Will tended to walk on eggshells around him when the problem was mentioned. Keeping Will off balance was always desirable.

  Things took a downward turn, however, as Gundar, seeing Halt upright for the first time in two days, stumped up the deck to join them.

  ‘Back on your feet then?’ he boomed cheerfully, with typical Skandian tact. ‘By Gorlog’s toenails, with all the heaving and puking you’ve been doing, I thought you’d turn yourself inside out and puke yourself over the rail!’

  At which graphic description, Alyss and Evanlyn blanched and turned away.

  ‘You do paint a pretty picture, Gundar,’ Will said and Selethen allowed himself a smile.

  ‘Thank you for your concern,’ Halt said icily. Of all people, Skandians seemed the most intolerant of seasickness – or, as he now knew it, malldy-mur. He made a mental note to get Gundar on horseback as soon as they reached Nihon-Ja. Skandians were notoriously bad riders.

  ‘So, did you find Albert?’ Gundar went on, unabashed. Even Halt was puzzled by his sudden apparent change of subject.

  ‘Albert?’ he asked. Too late, he saw Gundar’s grin widening and knew he’d stepped into a trap.

  ‘You seemed to be looking for him. You’d lean over the rail and call, “Al-b-e-e-e-e-e-r-t!” I thought he might be some Araluan sea god.’

  The others had to agree that Gundar’s drawn-out enunciation of the name sounded very much like the sound of Halt’s desperate, heartfelt retching over the side. Halt glared at the sea wolf.

  ‘No. I didn’t find him. Maybe I could look for him in your helmet.’

  He reached out a hand. But Gundar had heard what happened when Skandians lent their helmets to the grim-faced Ranger while on board ship and he backed away a pace.

  ‘No. I’m pretty sure he’s not there,’ he said hurriedly.

  Selethen, ever the diplomat, thought it might be time to get everybody’s minds off Halt’s stomach.

  ‘This is an interesting ship, captain,’ he said to Gundar. ‘I can’t remember seeing one quite like it. And I’ve seen many Skandian wolfships in my time,’ he added meaningfully.

  Selethen was the Wakir, or local ruler, of one of Arrida’s coastal provinces. He’d usually seen wolfships while they were engaged in raiding his towns. Gundar was oblivious to the reference. But, as Selethen had suspected, like any Skandian, he was eager to talk about his ship.

  ‘She’s a fine ship!’ he enthused. ‘Built her myself, up on the banks of a river in north Araluen – remember, Will?’ He looked to Will for confirmation. Gundar and his crew, having been shipwrecked on the north coast, had been conscripted by Will to assist him in the siege of Castle Macindaw. As a reward for their services, they had been granted permission to stay in Araluen while they built a new ship for the journey home. Will had also been instrumental in making sure that timber, cordage, canvas, tar and other materials were supplied to them at the bare minimum price.

  ‘I remember well enough,’ Will agreed. ‘But she was square-rigged then. This new sail arrangement is something quite different.’

  ‘Ah yes, the Heron sail plan. It’s really something,’ Gundar agreed. ‘We kept th
e hull and changed the mast, sails and rigging.’

  ‘Why do you call it the Heron sail plan?’ Alyss asked.

  Gundar beamed at her. He had met Alyss at Macindaw as well, and been rewarded by a kiss on his bearded cheek when they were reacquainted in Toscana. Gundar was partial to being kissed by beautiful blondes. But he sensed there was something between this particular one and Will, so he took things no further.

  ‘It’s named for the original ship rigged this way. The Heron. Not really a ship at all – she was only three-quarters the size of a wolfship. But the mast and sail plan were a brilliant new arrangement. It was the brainchild of a young Skandian lad. A genius, he was.’

  ‘I’d heard he was half-Araluan,’ Halt put in dryly.

  Gundar eyed him for a moment. Most Skandians these days chose to forget that they had sneered at the design when they had first seen it.

  ‘Maybe he was and maybe he wasn’t,’ Gundar said, then continued, with a total lack of logic, ‘But it was the Skandian half that came up with the design. Everyone knows Araluans know nothing about ships.’

  ‘Really?’ Halt said.

  Gundar glared at him. ‘Well, of course. That’s why so many of them start heaving their guts up the minute they step aboard.’

  Will saw the conversation heading back into danger. ‘So tell us about this design. How does it work?’

  ‘The most important part of it is that it lets us sail into the wind,’ Gundar told them.

  ‘Into the wind?’ Halt said. ‘How can that be possible?’

  Gundar puckered his face in a frown. He was reluctant to admit any shortcoming in his ship, but he knew that if he didn’t answer truthfully, his audience would see through his boasting eventually.

  ‘Not really into the wind,’ he admitted. ‘We can sail across it, gradually making ground against it. We’re able to move at an angle to the wind so we can still make progress when it’s on our bow. No square-rigged ship can do that.’

  ‘So that’s why you were constantly changing direction yesterday when the wind was against us?’ Selethen asked.

  ‘That’s right. We move diagonally to the wind. Then after a while, we switch and go the other way, gradually zigzagging in the direction we want. We call it tacking.’

  ‘Why?’ Alyss asked and he frowned again. He’d never queried why the manoeuvre he’d described was called tacking. Gundar was an accepting person, with a non-inquiring mind.

  ‘Because…that’s what it’s called,’ he said. ‘Tacking.’

  Wisely, Alyss pursued the matter no further. Will hid a small smile with his hand. He knew Alyss and knew that Gundar’s answer was totally inadequate to her inquisitive mind. He thought it best they should move on.

  ‘So how does it actually work?’ he asked. Gundar looked at him gratefully. This part he could explain.

  ‘Well, the young Skandian lad who designed it,’ he glared quickly at Halt, daring him to challenge the inventor’s nationality again, ‘had spent a lot of time studying seabirds, particularly the shape of their wings. He thought it might be a good idea to stiffen the front edge of the sail like a bird’s wing, and shape the sail itself so it was triangular, not square.

  ‘So he shortened the main mast, then designed that flexible curved boom you see that sits on top. The boom strengthens and supports the leading edge of the sail so that we can face it into the wind. A traditional square-rigged sail would simply flutter and vibrate and lose its shape. But with the boom, the sail forms a smooth curve so that we can redirect the driving force of the wind much more efficiently. The result is, the ship can move at an angle to the direction the wind is blowing from. In effect, we can sail against the wind.’

  He paused, seeing a few questioning faces, then amended his statement. ‘All right. Across the wind. But it’s a huge improvement on the old square sail. That’s unusable once the wind is any farther forward than dead abeam.’

  ‘But you’ve duplicated that thin top boom and the sail,’ Evanlyn said. And she was right. On the deck, lying fore and aft, was another boom, with its sail furled around it. It lay on the opposite side of the mast to the boom that was currently in place.

  Gundar favoured her with a smile. ‘That’s the beauty of this design,’ he told her. ‘As you can see, the sail is currently on the starboard side of the mast, with the wind coming from the port side, so it’s blown away from the mast into a perfect curve. When we tack…’ He glanced quickly at Alyss but she kept her expression blank. ‘The wind will be on the starboard side, forcing the sail against the mast, so that the perfect wing shape would be spoiled. So we rig another boom and sail on the port side. Then, when we tack, we lower the starboard sail and raise the port sail. The two are linked by rope through a pulley at the masthead, so that the weight of one coming down actually helps us raise the other one.’

  ‘Ingenious,’ Halt said at length.

  Gundar Hardstriker smiled modestly. ‘Well…most of us Skandians are.’

  Shukin held up a hand and the small party of horsemen drew rein, stopping in the central cleared space among the houses.

  The villagers were wary, but with the long-ingrained habit of respect for the Senshi class, they waited silently for the newcomers to state their business.

  They edged a little closer, forming a loose circle around the horses. Some of the villagers, Horace noted, were carrying heavy blackwood staffs, while others held axes loosely. But none of the makeshift weapons were being brandished in threatening gestures. They were simply kept close at hand while the villagers waited to see what might happen next.

  Shukin, who had been riding a few metres ahead of the group, turned in the saddle.

  ‘Come forward and join me, please, cousin,’ he said quietly to Shigeru.

  Shigeru urged his horse forward until he and Shukin were on their own, in the middle of the group of waiting Kikori. It was a courageous move on the part of the Emperor, Horace thought. Up till that moment, he had been safely surrounded by his group of warriors. Now, if trouble started, he was vulnerable to attack from all sides and his escort would not be able to reach him in time to save him.

  The rain began to mist down again, pattering softly on the thatched roofs and forming misty haloes around the hanging lanterns under the eaves of the verandahs that fronted the cabins. A cold trickle ran down the back of Horace’s collar and he shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. It was only a small movement but even so, a dozen pairs of eyes swung to him instantly. He settled back in his saddle and remained still. Gradually, the wary eyes returned to Shukin and Shigeru.

  ‘Kikori people,’ Shukin began. His voice was deep and authoritative. He didn’t speak loudly, but such was the timbre of his voice that his words carried clearly to everyone in the clearing. ‘Today, a great honour has come to your village.’

  He paused, his gaze scanning the waiting timber workers and their families. He felt a twinge of disappointment as he saw the disbelief in their eyes. They were cynical of any Senshi warrior who told them they were about to receive a great honour. Usually such statements were the prelude to a series of demands on their homes, their food, their time and their wellbeing. Be honoured because you can give us whatever we ask for – after all, we plan to take it anyway.

  Sad to say, it was the way the world had always been between the two classes.

  He sought for the words necessary to convince them that he and his men were not seeking to impose themselves on the village. They were asking for hospitality and shelter, yes. But they would pay. They would treat the villagers fairly. Any such reassurance would likely fall on deaf ears, he knew. The Kikori had years of experience of arrogant treatment at the hands of the Senshi and no number of soft words could change that.

  As he hesitated, he felt a light touch on his forearm.

  ‘Perhaps I should talk to them, cousin,’ said Shigeru.

  Shukin hesitated. Even in such humble surroundings, Shigeru should be accorded a certain level of esteem. And that meant that he should be announ
ced properly, with all his titles and honours, so that the people could greet him respectfully.

  He drew breath to say something along those lines when he realised that Shigeru was already swinging down from the saddle. The Emperor grinned at the man nearest to him, a heavily muscled, thickset type who had obviously spent his lifetime swinging the massive axe that he held loosely in his right hand. The man’s face was set in a stubborn, unsmiling expression. He had the look of a leader about him. He was the one to win over, Shigeru knew.

  ‘Aaaah!’ the Emperor said, with deep relief as he rubbed his buttocks. ‘That feels so good!’

  The timber worker couldn’t help a small, surprised smile forming. He was disarmed by Shigeru’s ingenuous statement and informal manner. They were far removed from the haughty demeanour of the Senshi that the timber worker had encountered in the past.

  Shukin watched anxiously from his saddle, his eyes fixed on that massive axe. He desperately wanted to move his hand closer to the hilt of his sword but he knew that would be a mistake – possibly a fatal one. At the slightest sign of aggression, this tableau could explode into bloodshed.

  Shigeru, however, seemed to have no such misgivings. He stepped closer to the man, bowed to him, and held out his hand in greeting.

  ‘What’s your name?’ he asked.

  The timber worker was taken aback. This Senshi was offering to clasp hands in friendship, an unprecedented gesture. And he had bowed first – a totally unexpected sign of politeness. He started to reach for Shigeru’s hand, realised that he held the axe in his own right hand and shifted it awkwardly to his left. Then he hesitated, glancing down at his callused hand, still stained with dirt and tree sap from the day’s hard work.

  Shigeru laughed, a deep booming sound that was genuinely amused.

  ‘Don’t worry about me!’ he said. ‘I’m not such a fragrant flower myself!’ And he held up his own palm, dirt and travel stained, for them all to see. ‘Just don’t crush my tiny fingers in that massive grip of yours!’

 

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