The emperor of nihon ja, p.9
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       The Emperor of Nihon-Ja, p.9

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

  A muted ripple of amusement ran through the watching villagers. Horace sensed a certain lessening in the tension. The timber worker grinned in reply and reached forward to clasp Shigeru’s hand.

  ‘I am Eiko,’ he said.

  Shigeru nodded, filing the name away. Horace knew the Emperor could be introduced to another twenty people this night and he would remember all their names after hearing them once. It was a skill that Shigeru had demonstrated on more than one occasion.

  Eiko now cocked his head to one side expectantly, wondering if the Senshi would respond with his own name. If he did, it would be a first. Senshi normally proclaimed their names loudly, expecting lower classes to respond with respect and awe. In Eiko’s experience, they didn’t exchange names in friendship with Kikori axemen.

  Shigeru held the pause just long enough to make sure he had everyone’s attention. Then he reclaimed his hand, shaking it a little in joking deference to the strength of Eiko’s grip.

  ‘Nice to meet you, Eiko. I’m Shigeru Motodato.’

  There was an intake of breath from the assembled villagers. Of course they knew the name. There had been rumours that Shigeru was visiting his mountain lodge, not too far away. And they had heard other rumours over the past few years. It was said that this Emperor was a friend of the lower classes, that he spoke easily and freely with farmers, fishermen and woodcutters when he encountered them, refusing to stand on his dignity, and treating them as friends.

  ‘Oh,’ Shigeru said, as if adding an afterthought, ‘sometimes people refer to me as “the Emperor”.’

  He turned, grinning at the people around him, and contrived in that movement to allow his outer robe to open, revealing the Motodato crest on the left breast of his tunic – a stylised bunch of three red cherries. It was the royal crest, of course, recognised throughout Nihon-Ja.

  Now the whispered intake of breath became a general chorus of respect and each of the villagers bowed their heads and dropped to one knee in deference to the Emperor. They had no doubt that this was he. It was an offence punishable by death for anyone other than the Emperor or his entourage to wear the royal emblem. They couldn’t conceive of anyone being foolish enough to do so.

  But now Shigeru stepped forward among them. He selected an elderly woman, grey-haired and stooped from a lifetime of hard work, reached down and took her hand, gently assisting her to rise.

  ‘Please! Please! There’s no need for such formality! Come on, mother! Up you come! Don’t get yourself all muddy just because of me!’

  The woman stood, but still kept her head lowered respectfully. Others in the crowd raised their heads as Shigeru reached forward, tipping her chin up with his hand so that their eyes could meet. He saw surprise mingled with respect, then a sudden glow of affection on the lined face.

  ‘That’s better! After all, you’ve worked hard all your life, haven’t you?’

  ‘Yes, lord,’ she muttered.

  ‘Harder than me, I’ll bet. Got any children?’

  ‘Eight, my lord.’

  ‘Eight? My lord!’ Shigeru said, cleverly repeating her phrase but changing the inflection to one of awed respect. Laughter ran around the assembled villagers. ‘You’ve definitely been working harder than me!’

  ‘And seventeen grandchildren, my lord,’ said the woman, emboldened now by his easy manner. Shigeru whistled in surprise and smacked his forehead.

  ‘Seventeen! I’ll bet you spoil ’em, eh?’

  ‘No indeed, Lord Shigeru!’ she responded indignantly. ‘If they play up on me, they feel the flat of my hand on their bums!’

  Her hands flew to her mouth in horror as she realised she’d said ‘bums’ in front of the Emperor. But Shigeru merely grinned at her.

  ‘Nothing to be ashamed of, mother. We’ve all got a bum, you know.’

  Now the laughter grew louder. Shigeru turned to the crowd and made an upward gesture with his hands. ‘Please! Please! No bowing and scraping needed! Stand up, all of you!’

  And they did, with a mixture of wonder and amusement at his easygoing, informal approach. They were a canny group, difficult to deceive. And they sensed, as did most people on first meeting Shigeru, that he was genuine. He liked people. He enjoyed meeting with them and laughing with them. There was neither deceit nor conceit about him.

  Instinctively, the villagers moved a little closer to their Emperor. But there was no threat in the movement. They simply wanted a better view of this legendary character. It was unknown for someone so exalted to visit a little village like this one – and laugh and joke with the inhabitants.

  ‘This is a beautiful village,’ Shigeru was saying, as he looked around the rows of neat, thatched cabins. ‘What do you call it?’ He selected a young boy for his question – a boy barely in his teens, Horace guessed.

  The youngster was tongue-tied for a few seconds. He stared wide eyed at his Emperor, not believing that he had been addressed by such an important personage. A woman standing beside him, probably his mother, Horace thought, nudged him with her elbow and hissed something at him. Thus encouraged, he stammered out an answer.

  ‘We call it mura, my lord,’ he said. His tone seemed to imply that Shigeru should have known that. There were a few muted giggles from the crowd but Shigeru beamed at him.

  ‘And an excellent name that is!’ he said. The villagers laughed out loud once more.

  Horace was puzzled until one of the escort edged his horse closer and said in a low voice, ‘Mura is Nihon-Jan for “village”.’

  ‘And is there by any chance a hot spring somewhere close to this mura?’ Shigeru asked.

  There were several affirmative murmurs from those around him. It wasn’t surprising. There were hot springs throughout these mountains and, wherever possible, the Kikori sited their villages near them. Horace felt a warm glow of pleasure flow through him. Hot springs meant a hot bath. The Nihon-Jan people loved hot baths and Horace had grown to enjoy the custom since he’d been here. After a day of hard riding and sore muscles, the idea of sinking into scalding hot water and soaking away the aches of the day was almost too good to bear thinking about.

  Shigeru’s gentle hint seemed to help the villagers remember their sense of hospitality. An older man, who had been in the second row of people standing around the Emperor, now stepped forward and bowed deeply.

  ‘My apologies, Lord Shigeru! In the excitement of seeing you, we have forgotten our manners. I am Ayagi, elder of the village. Please, have your men dismount. My people will tend to your horses and we will prepare hot baths and food for you and your men. We would be honoured if you will accept whatever rough hospitality we can offer you. I’m afraid it won’t be worthy of an Emperor, but it will be the best we can do!’

  Shigeru reached out a hand and laid it on the village elder’s shoulder.

  ‘My friend,’ he said, ‘you might be surprised at what’s worthy of an Emperor in these times.’

  He turned and signalled for his men to dismount. Some of the villagers stepped forward to take the reins of their horses and lead them away. At Ayagi’s bidding, others hurried off to prepare food for their unexpected guests. Horace groaned softly as he swung down from the saddle.

  ‘Take me to that bath and colour me happy,’ he said, to nobody in particular.

  ‘Down sail,’ Gundar ordered. ‘Rig the oars, men.’

  While the sail handlers brought the long, curving boom and its flapping sail back to the deck, the designated rowers were unstowing the white-oak sweeps and fitting them into the oarlocks. By the time the sail was furled and wrapped around the boom, the rowers were on their benches. They spat on their hands, rolled their shoulders and stretched their muscles in readiness for the hard pulling that lay ahead.

  Wolfwill rocked gently in the waves, a hundred metres off a low, featureless shore. There were no hills or trees in sight. Just bare brown sand and rock that stretched as far as the eye could see. And directly ahead of them, what appeared to be the mouth of a small river was just visible.
  ‘Ready, skirl!’ called the lead rower. It was Nils Ropehander, Will noted without surprise. Nils was one of the bulkiest and strongest in the crew. He was a logical choice as lead rower and he would set a cracking pace for the others.

  He was also not the most intelligent or inquiring of men and Will had noted over the years that those qualities, or lack thereof, often were the mark of an excellent rower. With nothing else to distract his mind, such a man could concentrate completely on the necessary sequence and rhythm of the rower’s craft: Up, twist, forward, twist, down, back.

  ‘So that’s it?’ Halt said, looking keenly at the gap in the low-lying coastline. ‘That’s the mouth of the Assaranyan Channel?’

  Gundar hesitated. He glanced at the sun and the horizon, then down at the parchment chart he had spread on a small table beside the steerboard.

  ‘According to this Genovesan chart I bought before we left Toscana, that’s it,’ he said. ‘That’s assuming that any Genovesan could draw an accurate chart. I’ve heard their skills lie more in the area of people-killing than map-making.’

  ‘That’s true,’ Halt said. Genovesa had a long seagoing history but in more recent times the city had become infamous for its highly trained assassins, who worked as hired killers throughout the continent – and occasionally, as Halt and Will had discovered not long ago, in Araluen.

  ‘Genovesans aren’t so bad,’ Will said. ‘So long as you manage to shoot them before they shoot you.’

  ‘Let’s go a little closer,’ Gundar said. ‘Oars! Give way! Slow ahead, Nils!’

  ‘Aye aye, skirl!’ Nils bellowed from his position in the bow of the ship. ‘Rowers! Ready!’

  Sixteen long oars rose as one, swinging smoothly forward as the rowers leaned towards the stern, setting their feet against the stops in front of them.

  ‘Give way!’ Nils shouted. The oars dipped into the water and the rowers heaved against their handles, with Nils calling a relaxed cadence for the first few strokes to set the rhythm. Instantly, the wolfship came alive again, cutting through the calm water as the oars propelled her forward, a small bow wave gurgling under her forefoot.

  ‘You’re planning to row through?’ Halt asked Gundar, glancing at the telltale strip of wool at the masthead. It indicated that the wind was slightly aft of the beam and he’d learned over the past few days that this was one of the ship’s best and fastest points of sailing. Gundar noted the glance and shook his head.

  ‘We’d lose too much distance to leeward,’ he said briefly. ‘This channel’s too narrow for that. We’d go forward, of course, but we’d lose distance downwind. Have to make our way back again too soon. Not a problem in the open water where we have plenty of sea room, but awkward in a confined space like this.’ He peered carefully at the coastline, now much closer to them.

  ‘Nils!’ the skirl called. ‘Up oars!’

  The oars rose, dripping, from the water. The rowers rested on them, keeping the blades clear of the sea. Accustomed to physical work as they were, none of them was even breathing hard. Slowly, the ship glided to a stop once more, rocking gently in the small waves.

  Gundar shaded his eyes, peering at the narrow opening – barely thirty metres wide. He glanced down at the chart and the navigation notes that had come with it, sniffed the breeze, then squinted up at the position of the sun in the sky. Will understood that this was all part of the instinctive navigation system that the Skandians relied on. Some of them, Oberjarl Erak, for example, were masters of the art. It seemed that Gundar was another adept.

  But obviously, it never hurt to ask a second opinion. The skirl looked around and sought out Selethen. Of all of them, he had the most knowledge of this part of the world.

  ‘Ever been here before, Selethen?’ he asked.

  The Wakir shook his head. ‘I’ve never been this far east. But I’ve heard of the Assaranyan Channel, of course. This is where I’d expect it to be. Further north and south, the land becomes more hilly.’

  They all followed his gaze along the coastline. He was right. Here, the coast was flat and low lying. On either side, north and south, the brown, dry land rose into low hills.

  ‘What exactly is this Assaranyan Channel, anyway?’ Will asked.

  Evanlyn, who had studied the route of their journey before she left Araluen, answered. ‘It’s a channel through the narrowest part of the land mass here. It runs for forty or fifty kilometres, then opens into a natural waterway to the Eastern Ocean.’

  ‘A natural waterway?’ Will said. ‘Are you saying this part isn’t natural?’ He gestured towards the unimpressive-looking river mouth ahead of them.

  ‘People believe it was man-made – hundreds, perhaps thousands of years ago. It runs straight through this low-lying area – that’s why it was built here.’

  ‘Of course,’ Will said. ‘And who built it?’

  Evanlyn shrugged. ‘Nobody knows for sure. We assume the Assaranyans.’ Forestalling Will’s next question, she went on: ‘They were an ancient race, but we know precious little about them.’

  ‘Except they were excellent diggers,’ Alyss said dryly.

  Evanlyn corrected her, but without any sense of superiority. ‘Or they had a lot of time and a lot of slaves.’

  Alyss acknowledged the point. ‘Perhaps more likely.’

  Will said nothing. He stared at the opening to the channel. It seemed so insignificant, he thought. Then he thought of the labour involved in digging a fifty-kilometre channel through this harsh, dry land. The prospect was daunting.

  Gundar seemed to come to a decision.

  ‘Well, as my old mam used to say: if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.’

  ‘Very wise,’ Halt replied. ‘And what exactly do your mother’s words of wisdom have to do with this situation?’

  Gundar shrugged. ‘It looks like a channel. It’s in the right place for a channel. If I were digging one, this is where I’d dig a channel. So…’

  ‘So it’s probably the channel?’ Selethen said.

  Gundar grinned at him. ‘Either that, or it’s a duck,’ he said. Then, cupping his hands round his mouth, he yelled at Nils. ‘Let’s get moving, Nils! Slow ahead!’

  The lead oar nodded. ‘Oars! Ready!’

  Again there was the squeak of oars in the oarlocks and the involuntary grunt from the rowers as they prepared for the stroke.

  ‘Give way all!’

  Wolfwill surged forward again, gathering speed with each successive stroke, then settling to a smooth glide across the water. Gundar, eyes squinted in concentration, leaned on the starboard tiller to line the bow up with the centre of the channel.

  They fell silent. The only sound was the creak and groan of the oars in their oarlocks as they swung up and down, back and forth, in unison, and the occasional grunt of exertion from one of the rowers. The sheer immensity of the task undertaken by those ancient people settled a kind of awe upon the travellers as the ship glided smoothly down the dead straight channel.

  It had to be man-made, Alyss thought. No natural river was ever so straight. As they moved away from the ocean, the dull brown desert enveloped them on either side and the freshness of the sea breeze, light though it had been, was lost to them. The channel grew wider as they progressed, until it was nearly one hundred metres across. Erosion over the centuries had widened the channel considerably. On either bank, the immediate ground looked soft and treacherous for another twenty metres or so.

  Selethen noticed Alyss studying the ground.

  ‘Step in that and you might not come out alive,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘I’ll wager it’s quicksand.’

  Alyss nodded. She had been thinking the same thing.

  The heat beat down on them, folding itself around them like a blanket. The air was heavy with it.

  Gundar spoke softly to two of the sailing crew. They hurried aft and slung buckets overside to haul up water. Then they passed along the rowing benches, tossing the cooling water over
the hard-working men. A few of the rowers muttered their thanks.

  The Skandians, experienced travellers as they were, had all donned long-sleeved linen shirts and had more of the same material fastened round their heads as bandannas to protect them from the sun. In the colder northern waters, Will had often seen them bare chested, seemingly impervious to the cold. But they were a fair-skinned race and years of raiding in the warm waters of the Constant Sea had taught them to respect the burning power of the sun.

  The sea water flung on them soaked their shirts, but Will noticed that they dried within a few minutes. He recalled his own experience of the sun’s power, in the desert of Arrida some years before, and shuddered at the memory.

  Some of the crew busied themselves rigging canvas awnings so that those not engaged in rowing could shelter in their shade. It was a welcome relief to be out of the sun’s direct glare. But the air itself was still heavy and oppressive. Will glanced over the stern. There was now no sign of the sparkling blue sea behind them. Only this brown river cutting straight through the equally brown sand.

  ‘How long is the transit?’ he asked Gundar. For some reason, he spoke softly. It seemed appropriate in this oppressive stillness.

  Gundar considered the question. When he replied, it seemed that he had the same aversion to making too much noise.

  ‘Five, perhaps six hours,’ he said. Then he reconsidered. ‘Could be more. The men will tire more quickly in this heat.’

  Acting on that thought, he gave an order and the relief rowing crew began to change places with the rowers. They did it gradually, a pair of oars at a time, working forward from the stern. That way, the ship maintained its motion through the murky brown water beneath them. As each pair of rowers relinquished their oars to their replacements, they sprawled instantly on the deck in the shade of the awnings. They were tired, but nowhere near exhausted, Will knew. He’d had plenty of experience with Skandian crews in the past. They had an inbred ability to fall sleep almost anywhere, almost immediately. In an hour or so, they’d be rested and ready to replace their companions at the oars again.


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