The Tales of the Wandering Ronin
Chapter I: Arrival
“Nobunaga Sen's declaration of war against the Shogunite has left us in a bad situation,” said Sakamoto Ryūzen. “Already he has done the impossible and gathered an army of nearly two-hundred and fifty thousand men with no one being the wiser. They are currently fortified in Kyoto.”
Fukuzawa Keichii frowned as he looked up from his observations of the digitized map displayed on the newly acquired analog system situated on the middle of the war room. Though, calling the diminutive space a war room may have been stretching things. The interior space he and his subordinates found themselves in was not only miniscule in comparison to the war rooms of more prominent Daimyo's, but also contained within it far less technology. Off to his immediate left sat several copper computers situated into small alcoves along the wall, the only other piece of technology aside from the analog map, which hummed and thrummed as the cogs within it turned.
The Daimyo studied his second in command, Sakamoto Ryūzen, with intent. “Do we know how Nobunaga-dono managed to acquire such a large task force within so little time? Last I heard, his forces only consisted of one-hundred thousand.”
The alliance, otherwise known as the United Japanese Constituents or UJC, had been created when Japan had finally repealed its policy of isolation and began opening diplomatic relations with foreign nations. It's creation had been caused by necessity, the need to present a unified front to those foreigners who may try to take advantage of their countries lack of unified policies and laws. It was an alliance that had stood strong ever since its conception fifty years ago in eighteen sixty-five.
It looked like that alliance would be coming to an end now. With Nobunaga Sen seceding from the alliance due to an argument with the Shogunite, who ruled the entire northern half of Japan, and now declaring war, small nations were going to be caught in the middle of what could very well be one of the most vicious and bloody wars in history.
“Misinformation, most likely,” Sakamoto answered. The sleeves of his traditional white Kimono ruffled as he held a hand up to his chin, absently scratching at the trace amounts of stubble growing there. “Nobunaga may not be much of a politician, but he is a cunning tactician. It would not surprise me in the least if he had simply kept the true number of forces at his disposal hidden until now.”
“But to do such a thing as lie about the strength of his army is against the policy of the alliance!”
Keiichi, along with Sakamoto, turned to look at the third member of their meeting. Tanaka Hatsume, an old man with a weathered face and many wrinkles, sat within a chair that moved on wheels. Within the brightly lit room, the many cogs and gears that made up much of the chairs back visibly turned as the oldest of the trio used the joystick on the left hand-rest to control the movement of the wheels.
“I think it has already been made clear that Nobunaga never had any intention of following the alliance's policies,” Sakamoto's dry voice responded. “There is no doubt in my mind that he has been planning this for a long time. It is the only way he could have fortified Kyoto so quickly. It's only a matter of time now before his forces begin marching towards Tokyo.”
“Which means we'll soon be caught right in the middle of their war,” Keiichi said, his hands clenching into fists.
“Indeed.” Sakamoto nodded. “Shiga is right on the border of Kyoto and Gifu, which is controlled by the Shogunite, Tokugawa Kirai.” Keiichi's attention was directed back towards the map, a topographical map that displayed all of the prefectures and who they belonged to. “Fukui and Tsu are the only other prefectures that do not owe allegiance to the Shogunite, and of the three of us, we are the weakest.”
“You suspect that Nobunaga-dono will attempt to make his pass into northern Japan by traveling through Shiga?” asked Keiichi.
“It's what I would do, were I in his shoes,” Sakamoto said, shrugging. “Though I doubt he will come here just to travel through on his way to meet the Shogunite's forces.”
“Surely you're not suggesting he will try to conquer us?” Tanaka's voice of shrill surprise said.
“Maybe not at first,” Sakomoto conceded, “but it would not surprise me if he endeavored to take over this nation at some point. Strategically speaking, it is much more sound than simply gaining permission of passage, especially as we are still part of the alliance. Nobunaga will not want any potential threats at his back.”
“I doubt he would act in an overt manner, though, at least at first,” Sakamoto added. “While not much for politics, there are still formalities that he must obey. We will likely receive a missive within a few months time, or perhaps an envoy, asking for safe passage through our lands. If we agree with their demands, they will begin trying to negotiate a treaty, one that will likely end in Fukuzawa-sama being turned into a mere figurehead.”
“And if we do not meet Nobunaga-dono's demands?” Keiichi, acceding the floor to the more experienced Sakamoto. “What do you predict he will do then?”
“It is hard to say.” Rubbing his chin, Sakamoto thought about the question, trying to predict the most probable outcome. “There are many ways he may go about this. His ultimate goal would be to, undoubtedly, kill you and replace you with someone loyal to him and his cause. How he would go about this is another matter entirely, though I expect it will be covert. His attempt will more than likely be some kind of assassination designed to make it look like Tokugawa is the one who eliminated you.”
“So either I become a figurehead or I wind up assassinated,” Keiichi mused, idly looking up at the ceiling. “Neither of those options seem very appealing.”
“Perhaps we can ask for aid from Tokugawa-sama?” suggested Tanaka.
“Out of the question,” Sakamoto said, swiftly cutting that idea down to shreds. “The Shogunite is no different from Nobunaga. No.” The middle-aged man shook his head, his gray hair, caught within a ponytail, swayed with the motion. “He's even worse. At least Nobunaga has a sense of honor, twisted though it is. There is a limit to what he will do in order to get what he wants. Tokugawa is a different breed altogether. He will do anything and everything, commit any atrocity imaginable regardless of how terrible, if it means getting what he wants.”
“Sakamoto-san is correct,” Keiichi added, backing the older man up. “I have met him on numerous occasions. During alliance meetings to discuss trade and policies with other nations, he is always attempting to garner more power and wealth unto himself. That is the whole reason Nobunaga seceded from the alliance in the first place.”
“Then what should we do?” asked Tanaka, his already wrinkled face creasing even more as he scowled. “We have neither the strength of numbers nor power to match either Nobunaga-sama or Tokugawa-sama.”
“Hmm...” Keiichi looked back down at the map, his eyes settling on the two small prefectures that stood on either side of his own. “Sakamoto, what are the chances of Fukui and Tsu agreeing to support us?”
“At the moment? None. By now, both Asano Nagotaime and Toyotomi Hideyome are already aware of the situation and know they have nothing to gain by helping us. At best, they will adopt a wait and see approach to the situation.”
“I see,” Keiichi murmured, musing. The index finger of his left hand idly traced a path along the digital map. “Our own standing forces barely number ten-thousand. Should either Daimyo decide to use force, we would no doubt be slaughtered.”
“Fortunately for us, neither will use force,” Sakamoto reassured his Daimyo. “With the eastern nations, especially Europe and the Americas, wanting to trade with Japan, they cannot afford to be seen so mercilessly crushing smaller prefectures such as ourselves. The easterners are surprisingly soft, easily horrified by acts of atrocity. Should either Tokugawa or Nobunaga be seen destroying us, the east will cut off all trade with our nation, and that will be the end of the influx of technology that we have been benefiting from for the past century.”
His military advisers words rang true. All of the technology they had at their disposal was due solely to their trade relations with foreign nations. And while many in Japan were scrambling to begin building the factories that were necessary to begin production of their own technology, and a few had even succeeded, progress in the department proved to be exceedingly slow. It would be another few decades before their own country had the means with which to build the many devices that had come to them from the east.
“So then, they will be forced to rely on subterfuge to dispose of me?”
“That is the most likely scenario. Neither side can afford to be seen as the aggressor in this, which is why, despite Nobunaga all but declaring war on Tokugawa, neither side has made a move. They simply cannot afford to. Any careless move on their parts will result in all trade with the outside being cut off.”
“In that case, why not hire a bodyguard, Fukuwaza-sama?” suggested Tanaka. “Someone who can keep you safe at all times?”
Sakamoto snorted. “No single man is strong enough to keep a person safe from the combined might of two opposing Daimyo's. They may not be able to send their armies in, but that does not mean they have forces of incredible skill at their disposal. I know for a fact that Hattori Hanzo's shinobi forces are firmly under Tokugawa's rule. And Nobunaga has recently managed to hire a group of mercenaries specializing in alchemy. Who can possibly keep Fukuwaza-sama safe that our elite guards cannot?”
“Actually,” Keiichi spoke up, directing all attention back towards him. “I do know of someone who has both the skill and the strength to do just that. A young man I met ten years ago.”
The Wandering Ronin
High above Japan, attached to a large, inflatable and over-pressured gas bag, sailed a rustic looking airship that appeared more nautical in nature than anything else. Built to resemble an old-fashioned pirate ship that once sailed the seas in search of booty, the vessel, made from a combination of wood and steel and copper, floated overhead, its single large propeller in the back pushing its body forward.
Many of the deckhands rushed to and fro on the ship, both inside and outside. Keeping a vessel like this, especially one so old, running, required a lot of work, more so than any sea faring vessel.
Hanzaki cared little for such things. How to keep a Zeppelin running were one of those few things he'd never really bothered to learn, since the idea of captaining or even piloting one held no appeal. And so while all of the deckhands ran apart, tightening valves, polishing pipes and swabbing decks, he merely stood near the edge of the ship, hands on the railing as he peered down at the world below.
From where he stood, Hanzaki could see much of the land below. They were traveling over a large body of water, Lake Biwa, he assumed. Vast plains stretched out across the eastern shore, while much of the rest was covered by cities and farmlands. One of those many cities, the one bordering the south of the lake was the ships destination.
As he stood there, gazing out at the landscape with a calm expression, the sound of clunking signified someone's arrival.
“We'll be gettin' to Otsu soon, lad,” a deep, scratchy voice spoke to his back. Hanzaki's ears twitched.
He turned around and gave a pleasant smile. “I am aware,” he said, bowing his head politely. “Thank you for agreeing to take me on board, captain Ahab, de gozaru.”
“Yer welcome, boyo,” the good captain said, his face set in a toothy grin. “After all the aid ye gave me when back when I lost me leg in the battle over Warrick. I would've been a goner had ye not found me.”
Captain Ahab, a man whose face looked weathered and worn by both time and battle, stood precariously, his left side lilting. Few men in this world had a visage as scarred as his. Missing his left leg, with a mechanical contraption made of coppery tubes, turning gears and three clawed phalanges, would be enough to frighten many. Add in the numerous scars covering his face and his missing left eye, which had also been replaced by a mechanical eye and you had someone who appeared every bit the boogeyman.
Which made his bright and cheerful personality all the more shocking.
“A mere coincidence that I happened to be passing through at the time,” Hanzaki said, “still, you are welcome nevertheless, and may consider your debt repaid, de gozaru.”
“I thank ye, lad.” The man, having said what he wanted to say, turned about and began shouting orders to his crew. “Alright ye sky faring lubs! We'll be settin' down soon! Man the valves and get ready to weigh anchor!”
Hanzaki turned back to the view as the captain's voice grew ever softer. The breeze from air travel caused the bangs of his dark red hair to rustle over his face. He frowned, just a little, his right hand coming up to keep his hair out of his eyes. He really should think about getting a haircut soon, at least in the front.
His cloak, a white and red cloak made from heavy fabrics that reached the floor, also whipped about him as the winds kicked up, the high collar ruffling against the lower half of his face, obscuring it from view.
He watched as the Zeppelin he rode upon slowly descended towards the lake. He could see their destination, a large docking station on the lakes surface that allowed cargo vessels to dock in the lake instead of the landing strip several miles to the west. It was not long before the ship reached the station and the ship found itself properly docked. When this happened, the landing ramp on the opposite side of the ship from Hanzaki extended and the copper railing slid to the left on automated treds.
With the ship docked, Hanzaki decided it was time to make his exit. He looked over at Captain Ahab to see the man busy shouting out orders. A small trail of sweat running down the sight of his face at the sight, the young man decided not to interrupt just to say goodbye. They would surely meet again someday anyway.
The Wandering Ronin
Otsu, despite its small size, appeared to be a rather lively city. Hanzaki walked through the cobblestone streets, his eyes traveling across the cityscape. While the architecture remained traditionally Japanese, right down to the small vendor stands, there were a number of remarkable differences from the smaller villages he himself had traveled to when he'd last set foot on the island nation.
The largest difference were the newer buildings. While still few in number, there were a number of structures that were reminiscent of those found within Britania, only with an oriental touch. Made of copper and cement and brick, these constructs managed to retain much of the artistry found in Japanese architecture while also holding a distinctly foreign appearance.
Everywhere he looked, his eyes spotted signs of foreign influence. Vendors selling the newest gadgets: leather bracers, goggles, hearing aids that allowed people to pick up subatomic vibrations representing shifts in the earths atmosphere, all of it gleaming copper, and with dozens of spinning cogs and turning gears.
Hanzaki turned his head this way and that, observing the city.
In most cases, being back home, or as close to home as a person like him could get, would have brought joy to his heart. That day did not seem to be “most cases,” as an air of tension pervaded the city. He could see it in the people's eyes, the worry, the apprehension. Given the letter he received not several days ago, he had expected something like this.
Hanzaki's walk brought him to a large mansion built within the center of the city. Surrounded by high walls made from brick, with sloping roofs situated on top, the only entrance in was the large pair of red double doors that stood nearly three times taller than him.
He stopped in front of the gates as a pair of guards walked up to him, their armor glinting dully in the light. They wore the traditional segmented armor plates of the samurai. The two samura carried both a traditional katana in a plain black sheath, along with the recently invented rayguns, a powerful mid-range weapon that shot out high-intensity aether beams.
Smiling at the two guards, Hanzaki greeted them the way he would anyone else, with a polite smile. “How are you two doing this day?”
The two seemed taken aback by his friendly personality and smile. They shared a look, both clearly confused. After shrugging to each other, they looked back at him.
“Um, this is the palace of our Daimyo, Fukuwaza-sama,” the one on the left said.
“I'm afraid we cannot allow you entrance,” the other added.
“Don't worry about that,” Hanzaki said, smiling. “I've got permission, de gozaru.”
“Hmm, now let's see. I know I have it somewhere... no. Not it. Nope. That's not it. Oh, hey! I was looking for that.”
The two guards stared, their mouths agape. Hanzaki didn't pay much attention to them, busy as he was searching through his short-sleeved dark blue shirt and black hakama pants. That wasn't what they were gaping at, however, but rather, the many different objects the young man pulled out of his clothes. This included but was not limited to a rubber duck, several watches, a number of random cogs and gears, and several bands that he used to tie his mid-length hair into a ponytail with.
“No. No. Not it. Uh, that's not it either. Hoo, um, eh. Oh! Here it is!” Smiling cheerfully, Hanzaki handed a small slip of paper that he pulled from within his shirt. “This should be enough to let me in, de gozaru.”
The two samurai crowded together, reading the small sheet of paper with increasingly wide eyes. They looked at Hanzaki, then at the paper. Back to Hanzaki. Back to the paper.
They eventually settled on Hanzaki.
“Very well, um, Hanzaki...sama... you may enter.”
Hanzaki blinked, but never got to ask about the new suffix before one of the samurai went over to a level set into the wall next to the gate. He pulled on it, and the sound of cranking gears could be heard coming from within the mass of cement. The two large double creaked open, swinging back in a slow, ponderous motion.
“Thank you very much, de gozaru.” Hanzaki waved at the two samurai and walked past the gate, humming a light tune to himself. He never noticed the looks exchanged by the guards as the gate closed behind him.
Behind the walls, a large mansion built in a traditional Japanese greeted him. A beautiful garden stood in front, complete with koi ponds and several small bridges. The structure itself, made of purple sloping roofs and mostly paper walls with intricate paintings depicting sakura trees in full bloom, appeared every bit the classic structure he'd expected it to be. While there were a few new additions, the clock situated near the entrance, its gears visible due to there being no outer casing, much of the original architecture remained intact.
At the front of the door, Hanzaki found himself greeted by something that was not human. Glinting in the afternoon sun with freshly polished metal, a bipedal construct made from a series of long pipes and tubes and cogs, stood an automaton, a robot. This particular automated humanoid had a thin chest, with several turning gears visible behind a glass panel in its front. Its head, shaped in the approximation of a humans, contained numerous cogs and gears and plates that spun about as its mouth moved. Its photo receptor eyes zeroed in on him.
“Good evening,” it said, its voice containing a strangely metallic quality that, for some reason, reminded Hanzaki of a Britanian. “You must be Hanzaki-sama. I am autonomous unit MD-556341, but you may refer to me as Dee for short. Fukuwaza-sama has been anticipating your arrival most anxiously.”
“Oh yes. He has been awaiting your arrival for days now.”
“Dee” led Hanzaki into the mansion proper and the young man, his red hair swaying as his head turned left and sight, got his first look at the inside of the mansion.
The soles of his leather boots hit the wooden floor with dull “thunks” as he walked, creating a counterpoint to Dee's metallic sounding “tinks.”
As he expected of a traditional Japanese mansion, much of the interior consisted of long, open-air hallways that allowed a view of the interior gardens. Several buildings were connected by these hallways, each one leading to a different part of the mansion.
Seeing how Hanzaki had never visited this mansion before, he couldn't judge which rooms were wear, but he had a feeling the one Dee was leading him to, which also happened to be the largest, was most likely the receiving room, where the Daimyo, well, “received” his guests.
His guesstimation turned out to be correct. The room was, indeed, a receiving room. Large and spacious and open, the floors were made of lightly tanned tatami mats. All except for the center, which appeared to be composed of wood planks. The planks also served as a path, leading up to a set of steps where a figure sat on an ornately crafted, if slightly modest, throne.
The person who sat upon this throne looked to be a man of modest age, probably a few years older than Hanzaki himself. He had a head of full brown hair, partially concealed by a very tall Eboshi being kept tied together by a white chord. His outfit spoke of elegance and modesty. The man wore a kimono, one that looked far more intricate than the clothing Hanzaki wore. A white kimono traveled just a few feet past his thighs, along with a dark blue vest, both of which were held together by white obi with a chord the same color as the vest wrapped around it. Around his hips, covering his legs was a pair of dark blue hakama pants, finished off by a pair of European-style boots worn on his feet.
The man stood up from his throne, or at least made an attempt. He didn't get too far before a hand was lightly placed on his shoulder by on his shoulder.
He froze. And then turned his head to see an older man giving him a disapproving look. When the older male shook his head, the younger of the two sat back down and gave Hanzaki an expression that contained half joy and mild embarrassment.
“It is good to see that you again,” the daimyo continued, trying to regain his dignity. “How have you been since we saw each other?”
“I have been well, Fukuwaza-sama,” Hanzaki said, stepping forward and performing a bow. “And how about yourself? How have the past ten years treated you?” he asked, curious.
“I have been blessed, mostly,” Fukuwaza-sama said. “As you can see, I've become a Daimyo now. My father passed on a little over a year ago, and my older brother died of what we suspect is a heart attack, forcing me to take the reins. It has been a difficult time for me, as unlike Komachi, I have not received any formal training in how to rule a nation. Fortunately, I have these two to help me.”
Upon being directed by Fukuwaza-sama, Hanzaki finally paid heed to the two figures that stood off to the side by the foot of the stairs. One of them was a tall man with a lithe build that not even his long, plain gray kimono could hide. A red obi kept the traditional Japanese outfit closed. He had a long face, thin cheeks that looked almost hollowed out, and a sword held near his waist.
He was also glaring at Hanzaki, making him wonder if he had unknowingly done something to offend the man.
The other member of the duo was an old man. A really old man. Hanzaki could not determine his age, but his face, wrinkled and weathered from the passage of time, showed that he had to at least be over seventy. The old man's bald head shone slightly in the light―oil, the swordsman realized, and his wrinkles were so prominent in some places, especially over his brows, that the skin there sagged. His eyes, which could barely be seen, were practically forced close from the overhang of skin.
Unlike his traditional clothing wearing counterpart, the older man was garbed in an outfit more befitting someone of Britania. A pair of black pantaloons were fastened around his waist, a white long-sleeved shirt with a stand-up high collar could be seen beneath a black double-vested waistcoat. He also wore a black top hat, an eye patch made up of what looked like the gears to a clock, and a pair of dapper-looking black over white boots.
“Hanzaki-san, please allow me to introduce my two advisers, Sakamoto Ryūzen, my military adviser, and Tanaka Hatsume, who adviser on foreign affairs and diplomatic matters.”
“A pleasure to meet you two, de-gozaru.” Hanzaki offered both advisers a bow as well, though it was not nearly as respectful as the one he gave Fukuwaza-sama. He also offered both a pleasant smile, which he'd kept up throughout the meeting thus far.
“Likewise,” the old man, Tanaka, said, his voice slightly high-pitched and scratchy.
“Hmph.” Sakamoto narrowed his eyes at Hanzaki. “So you are the young man who Fukuwaza-sama claims has enough skill with a blade to defeat whole armies?” The skepticism in his voice was more than apparent. “I don't believe it. You look like nothing more than a scrawny brat barely out of his mother's bosom. Fukuwaza-sama,” he turned to the Daimyo, “how could you expect someone like him to adequately protect you? I assure you that our elite guard is more than capable of keeping you safe.”
“The same way they kept me safe two nights ago?” Fukuwaza-sama made the statement sound almost like a question. Sakamoto looked away, clearly uncomfortable with the somewhat sly look his Daimyo sent him.
“That... that was merely a small slip-up on our part. We had been too lax in our patrol shifts and someone managed to memorize when guards changed shifts to slip in unnoticed. We have since begun randomizing shifts to maximize the effectiveness of our guards and keep any unwanted trespassers from being able to figure out our shift changes.” Sakamoto narrowed his eyes. “It won't happen again.”
“I am sure it won't,” Fukuwasa-sama agreed, nodding. “However, it could never hurt to have more protection, could it? I know Hanzaki-san from during my travels around Japan, and I know how skilled he is with a blade. While I am confident in your men and you, I would also like to have an added layer of defense, an ace in the whole, if you will.”
“Ha...” Sakamoto released a gusty sigh. “I have already that I will not fight you on this, just that I strongly protest the decision to let this person, of whom I know very little about, see to your protection.”
“So that is what you were asking of me in your letter, then?” asked Hanzaki, curious. “In the letter you wrote me, you only stated that you 'needed my help with an urgent matter and that I should come as soon as possible,' but you didn't actually inform me of what that matter is.”
“Indeed I did not,” Fukuwaza-sama said, turning to Hanzaki and therefore missing the mild glare Sakamoto sent the younger man's way. “What I have to tell you is not only too much information to put into a letter, but also highly confidential.” The young Daimyo coughed into his hand. “I am sure you've heard about the building conflict between Sen Nobunaga-dono and the Shogunitem Torune Tokugawa-dono, yes?”
“Only a little bit,” Hanzaki said, his face scrunching. “I do know that Nobunaga withdrew from the alliance after some kind of dispute, and that he has put forces around the borders of Kyoto, but I know little more than that. While news travels across the globe fast these days, Japan's internal disputes tend to stay within Japan until they become explosive.”
“Indeed they do, and this is one situation which might, as you say, become explosive.”
Hanzaki, now all ears at hearing that little tidbit, turned his full attention on the Daimyo, who began to explain the situation to the younger man.
The Wandering Ronin
“I get it now,” Hanzaki said, his eyes narrowed in thought, a small frown marring his features. “With tensions between these two forces bordering your prefecture about ready to erupt, you are looking to acquire extra protection in case one of them tries to take you out via subtle assassination and supplant your position with a figurehead.”
Which made Hanzaki realize why Fukuwaza-sama had sent him a missive asking for aid. While Shiga did have its own standing army, it could not contain more than ten-thousand soldiers or so at most. Meanwhile, both Tokugawa's and Nobunaga's forces were within the one-hundred thousands. They would be crushed should either side decide to attack.
An army also could not stop assassins, especially ninja, such as Hanzo Hattori's shinobi clan, which served under the Shogunite. They were masters of stealth. It would take someone with a special training in a specific skill set to protect people from assassinations, which most guards, especially those from prefectures as small as Shiga, simply did not have.
“That is the gist of my situation, yes. Precarious, is it not?”
“It is indeed a trouble situation, de gozaru,” Hanzaki rubbed his jawline.
“Will you help me?” asked a hopeful Fukuwaza-sama.
“Of course,” Hanzaki said with a smile. “I always help out my friends.”
Fukuwaza-sama slumped in relief. “Thank you.”
“There is no need to thank me.” Hanzaki shook his head. “You aided me plenty of times when we first met.”
“I sincerely doubt that,” Fukuwaza-sama said, clearly remembering that time. “As I recall, you were always the one saving my life every time I found myself in trouble. Never once have I been able to return the favor, and even now, ten years later, it is I who must ask for your aid again.”
“There are other ways of saving people that do not involve protecting them from harm,” Hanzaki told him.
“I suppose.” Fukuwaza-sama shook his head and brightened. “In either event, why don't I have Dee show you to your room. I would take you there myself, but Daimyo's, I have discovered, are forever busy.”
“That sounds fine. It was a pleasure meeting you again, Fukuwaza-sama, de gozaru.”
The Wandering Ronin
After the pleasantries were taken care of, Dee bade Hanzaki to follow as the robot led the young man out of the room and into one of the open-air corridors beyond.
Keiichi, Sakamot, and Tanaka all watched as the red-haired male left, following closely behind the automaton.
“I do not like this,” Sakomoto said as the door behind Hanzaki closed. “That man is nothing more than a ronin. There is nothing special about him. He doesn't even have the walk of a trained warrior. Our own elite guards should be more than sufficient for the task of protecting you.”
“You do not have like it,” Keiichi said, not expressing his annoyance with the way his second-in-command kept questioning his decision. Sakamoto did have a point. In most circumstances, ronin tended to lack the skills of a trained samurai from one of the prefectures, even small ones such as their own. “However, you will accept it. And don't let his appearance deceive you, he is far more skilled than you'd imagine.”
“I'll believe that when I see it.”
Keiichi sighed, but realized he wouldn't be getting an answer better than that. Sakamoto could be incredibly stubborn when he wanted to be.
The Wandering Ronin
“Here you are, Hanzaki-sama.”
The automaton, Dee, slid open the shogi screen door, and allowed Hanzaki to step in, which he did, with a grimace.
He really didn't enjoy getting preferential treatment. Maybe it was because he'd spent so the past seven years out of the country where no one actually knew him except for a rare few. Or it could just be due to how most countries outside of Japan don't use suffixes except during social functions, of which he never went to. But, regardless of the reasons, he'd never appreciated it when people (or machines) refereed to him with suffixes like “-sama” or even “-san.”
He still put up with it, though, if only because he understood Japanese customs well enough to know that telling someone to just call him by his given name would be seen as an insult to most.
“Thank you,” Hanzaki replied graciously, even as his eyes trailed across the room. Light green tatami flooring, a shogi screen door that opened onto a veranda overlooking one of the several gardens, and walls with intricate paintings of dragons. The room was large, at least to him. It was also rather barren. A closet to his left, a small European dresser made of brass, copper and wood also too his left, were the only items contained within the room. This made the interior space feel larger than it really was.
“You're welcome,” Dee said, and the robot's eyes lit up. “It is always a pleasure to be of assistance. If there is any other way I can be of assistance, please, do not hesitate to call upon me.”
“Actually, there is something you can help me with,” Hanzaki said. “My journey to get here was quite long, and while the vessel I sailed on had facilities, they were rather lacking. I was just wondering if you would be able to direct me to where I can go in order to clean off.”
While he did not grimace, the desire to do so was there. Saying that the vessel he'd been on didn't have very good facilities would be akin to saying the palace's of Daimyo's were all lackluster. In other words, it was a complete lie. Not only had the ship only come with just one restroom, it hadn't even been installed with a shower, which had forced him to wipe off using cloth.
Dee's mechanical joints squealed a little as the robot's hips cocked and his hands came up in a strange thinking posture, left hand held underneath its right elbow, right up near its face. If it weren't for the small fact that Dee was a robot, the stance would have made it appear almost human.
“There is indeed a place where you can to get washed up, Hanzaki-sama. The Daimyo has a hotspring near the back that I am sure he wouldn't mind letting you use. Simply go down this hallway until you reach the next building, then take a right to the building after that, followed by a left. That will lead you directly to the hotsprings.”
“W-wait! I wanted to tell that there may be someone else in...”
Dee trailed off, its photoreceptor “blinking” as it watched Hanzaki walk off in the direction of the hotsprings, its left hand outstretched in a very human-like gesture, as if it were trying to grab a hold of the human male's clothing.
“...The hotspring right now,” the robot finished.
In the stillness of the hallway, the hand went back down to Dee's side, the machine of copper tubes and turning gears affecting a posture of worry.
The Wandering Ronin
Hanzaki hummed a soft tune to himself as he stripped off his clothes, folded them up and put them in one of several baskets designated for clothes. Excitement coursed through his veins, along with a good dose of anticipation. How long had it been since he'd been in a hotspring? A true hotspring and not those shoddily built bastardized versions that littered Europe? Years. Seven years to be precise. Oh how he'd longed to feel the hot water soaking into his skin. There were many things in life that he had come to regret, and not being able to spend time in a traditional Japanese hotspring stood near the top of that list.
Perhaps it was due to his excitement, but as Hanzaki grabbed a towel and walked to the sliding door that led to the hotspring proper, he did not notice the extra set of clothes in a basket several feet from his own.
He walked into the hotsprings.
Like most hotsprings found in Japan, this one held onto the traditional appearance that made them so reknown. Lined with rocks along all sides, and with several large boulders jutting up from the waters surface near the center, much of the spring was obscured by steam. Even from where he stood, Hanzaki could barely make out the several dozen boulders that comprised of a water fall in the very back.
A glance around the front allowed him to find several wooden pales situated near a stool that had a bar of soap and some shampoo. He went over to them and began the bathing ritual that all Japanese men and women know.
Unlike in Europe, the Americas, and just about every other country, bathing in Japan was about more than just getting clean. An entire routine and process had been created in order to properly cleanse the body and soul of impurities. The first step was cleaning your body. Unlike other countries, where bathing and cleaning were one and the same, in Japan, you cleaned your body before ever stepping into the water. This was because the act of soaking in the bath had nothing to do with cleaning, and everything to do with relaxing. How could you relax if you were soaking in your own filth? That was why making sure you scrubbed every part of your body and rinsed thoroughly using the pales was so important. Only after your body was thoroughly cleansed could you step into the waters and truly enjoy the full experience of being in a hotspring.
The same etiquette applied to more than just hotsprings, but bathing in general. It was an important ritual in Japan, one that no one Japanese would dare neglect.
After Hanzaki finished cleansing his body, the young man, his red hair dripping wet and his towel wrapped around his waist again, slowly eased himself into the hot waters. He could feel the water as it caressed his body like a long lost lover, feel the relaxing heat as it wrapped him in a cocoon. The steamy mist that hung in the air conformed to his skin, and the smooth rocks felt wonderful against his back.
While he was relaxing, a splashing noise to his left alerted him to the fact that someone else had also decided to use the hotspring.
Thinking it was just Fukuwaza-sama, Hanzaki opened his eyes and greeted his friend.
“I hope you don't mind me using your hotspring,” he started to say, smiling. “It's been a really long journey and I... uh... eh... what?”
Hanzaki's brain screeched to a stop upon having his eyes land on the person standing before him. Contrary to his initial assumption, Fukuwaza-sama was not, in fact, the person who'd made the splash. It was actually a girl.
A very beautiful girl.
Within Japanese culture, there is a term used to describe the idealized woman. Known as Yamato Nadeshiko, these women are considered the personification of the idealized Japanese woman, or the epitome of pure feminine beauty.
If you were to break the expression down, “Yamato” is one of the older and more poetic names for the Japanese people and culture, similar in some ways to the Celtic “Albion” used to describe the island that made up the heart of the Britanian Empire. Meanwhile, “Nadeshiko” is the Japanese name for Dianthus superbus, a wild flower found within the Japanese highlands that is related to the carnation.
Broadly speaking, then, a yamato nadeshiko is a “flower of Nipponese womanhood” or a woman with attributes that were considered desirable in the male-dominated Confucian Japan of the nineteenth century and beyond. This term was generally ascribed to noble women with traditional upbringings, but has sense broadened and taken on a somewhat new meaning.
With recent cultural developments, a yamato nadeshiko generally means a woman with porcelain pale skin, soft and smooth, long flowing hair the color of ravens, and a willowy figure that is both womanly and delicate. Basically, the term has become flanderized since its conception and taken on a more physical meaning, denoting a woman who is physically ideal to what men want. They are also polite, well-mannered, gentle, and soft-spoken.
Most of the time.
Hanzaki's eyes widened as his brain finally caught up with his vision. Out of instinct, really bad instincts, he stood up. This idea turned out to be the worst one possible because the moment he stood, his towel slid from around his waist. The beautiful young woman, who had been staring at him with wide “rabbit staring into a raygun” eyes, found those same eyes trailing down.
Her face began to boil.
“KYA! It's a pervert!”
Her scream pierced the air.
“N-now miss,” Hanzaki tried to reason with the young lady, even as his eyes struggled to stay on her face. He may consider himself a gentleman, but he was still a man. “This is all just one big misunderstanding. Let's just calm down and―”
Hanzaki would never get to finish that sentence.
Because the next thing he knew, something hard and powerful hit him right in the face and his entire world went dark.