“So this is the kingdom of Yashima,” the woman murmured as she alighted from the gangplank of the galleon ship they traveled on. Once she was on land she gazed back, shading her eyes from the noonday sun which threw the towering masts and billowing sails of the massive wooden vessel into sharp contrast against a clear blue and nearly cloudless sky.
The natives of Yashima gave her puzzled stares, for she was very different from them. The woman was
The natives of Yashima gave her puzzled stares, for she was very different from them. She was taller and more fuller figured than their women. But she was certainly not unattractive. Some might even consider her beautiful if one was willing to overlook the usual standards for female beauty in this land.
The woman ignored it, however. She was a female Westerner newly arrived at a faraway land that was quite different from her own. She knew the likes of her were not a common sight here. But she still felt a bit unnerved by all the attention she was receiving. She was only a handmaiden to a princess, albeit a disgraced one, and was more used to being in the background.
But thank goodness our journey is over, she thought, looking at her young charge, Her Royal Highness Princess Ariadne, youngest daughter of His Imperial Majesty King Aedmund and Her Imperial Highness Queen Nessiya of Northern Valedonia, a powerful kingdom located at the opposite end of their world in the Western Commonwealth.
The former Princess Ariadne, the woman mentally corrected herself. The thought saddened her. She doesn’t deserve this … how could they do this to their own daughter? Disown her! Strip her of her title and her name! And cast her aside like a leper when she had done nothing wrong … nothing!
Except to love a land and a people that was completely different from her own …
With a sigh, she pushed those gloomy thoughts aside, and took careful stock of their new surroundings. The harbour stretched before them in an area she guessed would cover a thousand or so hectares, and was built to accommodate a great number of seagoing vessels of all sizes and shapes, from light, fast skiffs to enormous galleons like the one she and the princess sailed in.
Beyond the harbour landing was a wide street made of cobbled stone on which crowds of passengers, port officials and employees, and ships’ crews entered and exited. Off to one side, there was a broad, wooden bridge that had a gentle arch which served as a connecting highway that enabled people and various forms of transportation to go in and out the harbour.
Across the broad landing was an array of wooden buildings and edifices that served as trading posts, shops, warehouses and shipyards. Some of the grander structures were topped with curving roofs and decorated with elaborate carvings of phoenixes and crouching lions. Others were covered with plainer, flatter roofs but had signboards filled with characters, many identifying them as either warehouses or merchants’ offices. The rows of buildings made an imposing backdrop for the crowds of people who pass through it.
The Port of Sagami, the ship’s captain informed them.
“ ’Tis a fine a place as yer ever gonna see ma’am, an’ a match to any harbor town in the Western Commonwealth,” the captain, a fellow Northern Valedonian, continued. “I ‘ave crossed the Great Barrier Ocean many a time an’ then some. ‘Ave seen me fair share o’ places in the Commonwealth an’ the Eastern Realms, yes I ‘ave. An’ Sagami, in the kingdom of Yashima where I be takin’ ye an’ yer sister is one o’ the grandest harbor towns there is. It may looks a bit different to us Western folks, but that’s ’cause one ’as to see it in its own terms.”
The woman smiled at the memory of their brief chat which took place only a week ago. “And what does that mean, Captain Hamel?”
The old sea-dog gave her a grin that somehow managed to be sweet and endearing despite some missing some teeth - while the few that remained were heavily stained with tobacco. “Each an’ every place ’as its charms, ma’am. The same ways any woman ’as ‘ers. Ye jes’ gotta looks a bit harder to find it.”
The old man leaned on his bamboo cane and gazed down at the group of men gathered before him. They were all dressed identically in dark-grey garments with fitted hoods that completely covered their bodies and their faces. They knelt before him on one knee, ready to receive his commands.
“Do you all know what to do?”
“Yes, Master Gorō,” they replied in unison.
“And what will you do?”
“What must be done.”
“And when will you do it?”
“At the right time, Master Gorō.”
The old man smiled at how well they answered. It was both tranquil and frightening, like a fox hunting for prey. “Good. You are all dismissed.”
Moving as one body, the men stood up and vanished.
The woman, Lihyal, and her charge (she still thought of her as her charge, no matter what), Ariadne, took in the sights of this new world. In Ariadne’s eagerness to know more about Yashima, the two of them took many extensive lessons on its language, history and customs. Fortunately, they both had a good ear for languages, and Lihyal was secretly surprised she could actually understand snatches of conversations from the people passing by.
“Isn’t this exciting Lihyal? We’re finally here, in the kingdom of Yashima!” Ariadne burst out in a high, lilting voice that startled not a few of the Yashima people into openly gaping at the exotic-looking lass.
“Milady, please. People are looking,” Lihyal urgently whispered to her.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I suppose I got carried away,” the younger woman replied with a giggle.
“Do behave with a bit more dignity, milady,” Lihyal continued, worried. “Especially now that we are no longer part of the royal family, and we may have to survive here on our own with no resources and one else who may help us.”
But nothing could completely hide the lively spark of life in Ariadne’s sky-blue eyes. “But a foreign land holds the promise of adventure. And since we’re able to speak their language, we have the advantage.”
Lihyal smiled. Ariadne is a very intelligent and kind-hearted girl. But she was also impulsive and a bit too carefree for her own good, traits that never stood well with her royal parents, the Crown Prince Orman or her four other siblings.
Ah well … she never fails to look on the bright side … even during the darkest and most uncertain situations … bless her - I may just as well use some of that optimism myself …
“Ahoy, ladies! I sees ye has yer sea legs workin’ jes’ fine! I hopes ye ‘ad no trouble durin’ our journey to Yashima, ’ave ye?” Captain Hamel called out as he strode down the gangplank.
Ariadne grinned. She too, enjoyed the old man’s company. “A good day to you, Captain Hamel and yes, we enjoyed our trip immensely. And we thank you for helping to make our voyage as safe and comfortable as possible.”
“Th’ pleasure’s all mine, ma’am. Always glad to helps out th’ lord in this ‘ere parts. He’s a good man, that he is, an’ will treats ye both very well, that he will do.”
“The lord? The one who governs this part of the country?” Lihyal asked.
“Aye. Lord Takeo Matsuda, that be ‘is name. As a matter o’ fact, he be the one who’s dun’ an’ gits the ‘ole thing planned an’ arranged everythin’ as nicely as ye please. That so’s ye can settles down ‘ere in Yashima nice an’ quiet-like.”
“The Lord Takeo Matsuda?” Ariadne’s eyes widened in surprise. She recognized the name. Even If it wasn’t for Lord Matsuda, they would never have learned about Yashima - or, as they just discovered, even set foot on it.
Lihyal smiled at her charge. She too remembered that day very well …
All it took was an inquisitive 5-year old Princess Ariadne and her 13-year old handmaiden Lihyal to sneak into her parents meeting with a group of diplomats from a land located in the Eastern Realms. Her brother, the Crown Prince said they were barbarians who dressed oddly. And that one remark was enough to make the little princess curious enough that she even risked breaking strict protocols forbidding uninvited members of the royal household to attend meetings in the audience chamber.
What happened next was quite extraordinary. The two were spotted and were given a grudging introduction to their Eastern guests. But Lord Matsuda, the head of the diplomatic group, somehow turned what could have been an embarrassing incident into a diplomatic coup of sorts. At his prompting, a member of his entourage gave, for the royal family and their courtiers a firsthand demonstration of the Yashima art of divination called “face reading”. The young man who did the face reading, Ken’ichiro, concluded that Princess Ariadne has a bright and shining future ahead of her - but only if she has the strength and courage to take it …
“Aye, th’ very one. Th’ Matsuda family’s long been rulin’ this ‘ere part o’ Yashima fer many generations,” the sea captain replied, bringing the two women out of their shared reverie. “Folks ‘ere says th’ lord ev’n ’as a secret group loyal to ’im ‘at does th’ near miraculous deeds ’at ‘is bidding, if ye gets me meanin’ ladies.”
“Oh? What sort of deeds, Captain Hamel?” Ariadne asked.
“Heh! Danged if’n I knows what they be, ma’am. They be a slippery, secretive lot, that they are! No one knows fer sure, really!” Captain Hamel let out chuckle. But a knowing gleam passed the old man’s eyes for a fleeting moment before it was gone.
From the corner of her eye, she detected a movement and glanced to her right. It turned out to be one of the dockside porters passing by. He was a burly man who stood a bit taller than the others, despite a hunched back. He shouldered a carrying pole that was weighed on both sides by heavy bales wrapped in straw. A worn, conical straw hat shaded him from the sun but hid his face. One sleeve of the mid-length cotton robe he wore was partially pulled back as he balanced the carrying pole. It revealed a tanned arm that bulged with muscles and was marked with a crisscross pattern of scars.
Lihyal made a small shudder. Poor man … how miserable his life must be, hauling cargo like a pack animal … Oh, stop it Lihyal! You should be ashamed of yourself! Judging a complete stranger - especially in a foreign land!
Mortified by her inner thoughts, Lihyal gave herself a mental shake and directed her attention to the arrival and little welcome speech of Lord Takeo Matsuda. All thoughts of the unfortunate porter were forgotten.
“That’s the last of them, boss,” the porter grunted, laying down the bales before the warehouse clerk and placing the carrying pole beside a wooden rack where the other carrying poles were stacked.
“Good! So that’s around thirty loads for this morning. Not bad at all,” the skinny pointy-chinned clerk muttered as he scrutinized the tallies. He dipped a bamboo writing brush into an ink pot and wrote down a row of neat characters on the thick silk-bound ledger before him. He then handed the hunched-back porter a lacquered strip of bamboo that listed all the loads he carried.
“Take this to the counting-house at the end of the wharf, and show it to Ikki, the accountant in charge there. He’ll give you your pay.”
“Thanks, boss.” The porter fingered the bamboo tally for a momentand headed towards the door.
“By the way, what’s your name again? We could use a man like you.”
“Name’s Tatsuya, boss.”
The clerk gave a small nod. “How is it written?”
The man shrugged and slowly ambled away. “Don’t know, boss.”
Tatsuya found himself as the very last straggler at the very end of a long line that snaked outside the counting-house. It moved slowly but at a steady pace.
“Next!” Ikki called out.
He shuffled forward to stand in front of the wooden collection window which was manned by a beady-eyed man whose wide, toothy grin never left his face … and was annoying the shit out of him.
So he expressed his displeasure by slamming the bamboo tally on the accountant’s ledge with a loud tack! which startled Ikki but didn’t make his goofy grin disappear.
Just my luck …
“There’s no one here but us, you stupid baka! You’re overdoing it!” Tatsuya whispered in hushed but harsh tones.
“Hey, I gotta keep up appearances here! You can’t be too sure, y’know.”
“And pasting that dog-faced grin of yours all day is gonna make people suspicious, Ikki!”
“Master Gorō only ordered us to do our duties. He said nothing about how to do it.”
“Well, you’ve got a really weird way of carrying them out, baka!”
“And you’re one to talk, Tatsuya! You and that fake hunchback of yours!”
“Hmph! Just make sure no one found you out.”
“Heh, I’m good. Did you get to check out Lord Matsuda’s entourage before they left?”
“Of course, I did. Two Westerners. Both women.”
Ikki gave an indifferent nod as he studied the bamboo tally and started counting out a pile of coins. “That’s a first for Lord Matsuda,” he murmured. “I wonder what made him take an interest in these foreigners.”
The “porter” just grunted. Clearly, he didn’t seem interested.
Annoyed that he was being ignored, Ikki gave a discreet snort and resumed his playacting. “Thirty copper coins, as agreed!” he called out in an overloud voice. “Have a good day!”
Reaching from above, he grabbed a wooden sliding panel and slammed it down hard, closing the collection window and ending their conversation.
Frowning in annoyance, Tatsuya stuffed the pouch of coins into his sleeve and walked away from the counting house. A few steps away, and he slipped noiselessly into a dark, narrow alley. After making sure no one spotted him and that he was alone, he made a series of mysterious hand signs that an ordinary person could not follow - or decipher. His back straightened into its normal ramrod posture, the hunchback gone. He strode off to the opposite end of the alley at a casual pace towards the opposite end of the wharf which led to an exit path. Across the path was an empty warehouse. Like a shadow, he made his way to the sloping, wooden rooftop and positioned himself behind one of the wooden decorative carvings.
It made an excellent vantage point, and he caught a glimpse of the retreating entourage of Lord Matsuda - and the palanquin which carried his special “guests”.
Master Gorō will be waiting for his report, but that won’t be till much later when the rest of the shinobis gather for the evening council meeting at the Yamanoha clan’s stronghold hidden deep in the mountains. He decided that having an hour to himself will be enough time to reflect on the two female Westerners.
The younger of the two had an aristocratic air about her. No doubt that one is a noblewoman, like Lord Matsuda. A graceful, willowy lass who seemed to be in her early twenties, with blue eyes the color of a clear spring sky. Her waist-length hair fell in loose waves and seemed to be an unusual mix of brown and russet. She was certainly beautiful, even for a Westerner, he thought.
But it was the second woman his mind focused on. And found much more pleasing. No doubt she was older, but she had a quiet and elegant air about her that he found very attractive. Her figure was plumper and more rounded, with noticeably wider hips but still nicely feminine. Her glossy hair was a rich brown, like late-autumn leaves. She kept it tied back and neatly coiled at the nape in a simple bun. Judging from her hairstyle, her hair most likely would be waist-length as well.
Her round, slightly upturned eyes were a remarkably striking shade of amber and dark honey but seemed to hold an air of sorrow. A pert little nose, dainty heart-shaped lips and a soft rounded chin completed the picture.
Lihyal … now there’s a woman worth knowing …