The ocean expressed a lime green. The day was clear with a blue sky that was supposed to be a reflection of the water, but God had decided today was not the day for that to happen. Still, today had been deceiving in many ways. The ocean was rough, causing the vessel to rock back and forth with more momentum than usual. It was a constant irritant in the mind of those who crewed and operated the ship heading for shore. It would be a few hours but the ship was on schedule. They had crossed through the Philippines (from his majesty, King Phillip of Spain) and as a point of reference had shadowed the coast of China, stocking and trading goods for silk to bring to Japan. In many ways, the clear ocean was a relief since there had been fear the ship would hit a storm and capsize near the coast before they even made it to their destination. A lot of crewmen had thanked God for the safe journey and made their way through the day preparing cargo to be unloaded from their crates and barrels.
“How long until port?”, one of the idle passengers asked, his back leaning against the barrister of the ship with his arms crossed and head bowed.
“You mean Nagasaki?”, the other replied, leaning forward and looking out to sea.
“Yes”, Hans replied after a brief silence. He was a stern man, stocky in height, with fair ruffled hair after months at sea. He was dressed in the traditional way a civilian from Europe would be, more specifically the Holy Roman Empire. He was from Stuggart himself but that hadn’t stopped him at any point from wanting to travel, despite the objections from his father. In the long term, it didn’t matter really anyway. He had never seen the satisfaction in living an idle life in the city, the outside called to him. In the way the world worked, there were Kings and Queens, nobles, merchants and everyone else. They were endowed their liberties and in many ways he had to find his own as well, as was given to him by the almighty. It had caused him to travel and find somewhere else to go. A tight fitting tunic clung to his body and was a vast contrast to the trousers he wore, which flared out from the waist and cut off at the ankles where tights ended the journey to the feet; the trousers were decorated with strips on top of the fabric, the strips being a maroon on top of the green which it laid upon.
“You know why you’re here, I don’t need to remind you”, the other figure said.
“I don’t know Himmel, why don’t you tell me again?”, Hans replied irritated. The other man was a taller, slender, man who had clear blond hair, balding, and softer features. In many ways, he was also better looking compared to his stout and broad shouldered partner.
“This is my second journey to Nagasaki. Hopefully like the first time we can get trading rights over the Portuguese, those Catholic bastards”. Himmel glanced at Hans before looking out to sea again.
“So, this place sounds interesting from what you’ve told me. Are they really like what you’ve told me?”.
“Yeah, it’s nothing like you’ve seen before, you’ll see soon for yourself. They even look different to anything you’ve seen as well”.
“They can’t be that different, we’ve crossed some weird places”.
“Nope, these people are something else; more than anywhere we’ve been anyway”. He glanced to the side of Han’s waist.
“You’re not still carrying that thing are you?”. Hans opened his eyes and looked down to the sidearm he was carrying. It was a long blade, with an elegant conforming scabbard, accompanied by a slender handle that inwardly dipped twice to accompany two hands, cutting off with an almond shaped pommel. The blade itself was broad but tapered to an eventual point and thus formed a shallow triangle. Whoever had made it had put care into it and various anthropomorphic images had been carved into both the cross guard and pommel. The cross guard itself was a simple straight line that flared outwards towards the end and was accompanied by a beautifully etched ring. It protected the grip and stretched from one start of the cross guard to the other.
“It’s a bit outdated, I mean it is 1600. You could do better for yourself, there are better swords that do the job easier. After all, a bodyguard needs a useful blade”, he said, tapping the scabbard of his cutlass. It was a simple thing, a single edged cutlass with a rectangular knuckle guard that offered modest protection.
“You better know how to use that thing, I’ve seen a lot of hands get cut”.
“I’m not completely inexperienced, I have used it before”.
Hans opened his eyes and looked at Himmel while his arms were still crossed.
“Himmel, there’s a reason why you chose me to accompany you and it wasn’t to be a drinking accomplice. From what you’ve told me, this place sounds dangerous”. It hadn’t been a simple choice but the benefits outweighed the risk, the pay was good as well; he would never get anything like that working in Stuttgart or as a Mercenary in Italy.
“You might have to be, they drink as much as us as well”, both chuckled slightly. Himmel continued.
“You’ll do fine, I know the school you served; your father knew the teacher if I understand correctly. Just be careful and keep your head down when we get there. The land’s fighting a war at the moment but things apparently have calmed down since”.
Things hadn’t been great in Europe either. His grandfather had served in the siege of Munster and was one of the first to enter the gates and slaughter the Anabaptists as a Landsknecht. When Hans grew up, he would accompany his father various times as well as attend one of the more prestigious schools in Stuggart; purely by chance as his father knew the master from their time together. That experience had taught him to be competent. He wasn’t great compared to some fencers, but he sure wasn’t sloppy either. Apart from that, things hadn’t been as bad as they were 50 years ago; though that was obviously a matter of opinion; he had been a witness to what was going on in France, needless to say it was a bloodbath. Himmel had been right about one thing though, this land they were going to had been at war for some time. Apparently, it had been brutal, as stories made their way to Nagasaki during Himmel’s time there. He was even fortunate enough to hear about heaps of bodies, even seeing some severed enemy heads at one point during his travels in West Japan. That wasn’t anything new, Hans guessed. His grandfather had told him what they did to the head Anabaptists at Munster. Tortured to death and hung in a cage on top of Munster Cathedral for all to see. The rest were decapitated, hung, drawn quartered and the lucky ones were burned alive. Both had seen their share of brutality in both the Kaiser’s Empire and the Netherlands (where Himmel was from).
“Also be weary, there’s a few bastards there who like to drink; a few good con men as well. It’s not so different from where we were”.
“You mentioned they had long swords as well”. Himmel stared at Han’s sidearm for a second.
“Well, they are long and they are swords”, both of them chuckled.
“You never did say what they’re like though, Himmel”. Himmel thought to himself for short while.
“Well, they’re kind of like your sword and mine. Like some sort of two handed messer. I’ve never seen anything like it to be honest; well, apart from a few cleavers back in France. Even then, this one’s more slender. I can’t really say anything more than that to be honest”.
“Sounds like a mystery”.
“Not as mysterious as bloody Liechtenauer!”, replied Himmel. Both men laughed before Hans turned and gazed at the clear but irritable ocean, the smell of sea salt fresh in his nostrils. Both stood in what seemed like a tranquil pause, looking aimlessly and waiting for their destination.
The arrival of the carrack to Nagasaki had happened sooner than anticipated. Different vessels docked the city, some recognizably European with their cannoned hulls and single masts which displayed the cross of Christ, while others took on a different appearance. Some were simple fishing vessel, nothing out of the ordinary, and one could obviously see their basic utility. Others were something out of the bible. Various ships circled the dock, all of them almost hulking blocks with smaller sails. Each of them were laden with troops, carrying spears and wearing weird cone hats, which Hans had never seen before. From the looks of things they were stocking up to travel, probably to another part of the land.
“We’re here earlier than expected”, Himmel said out of nowhere. “Good thing as well, last time we had pirates”.
Hans paused in surprise for a second. “Pirates? What, like Barbars?”
“Nothing like them, they had ships like those ones. The bastards were loaded, we thought they were coming for us at one point, they didn’t; something must have caught their attention”.
The wait to disembark took a while, by the time they had it was afternoon; they had arrived in the late morning. Climbing down to the smaller rafts was a hassle but after a few minutes they managed with the crew, while a select number stayed on the ship. Though the water was still slightly ruff, the shores gave a clear blue rather than the unsavoury lime they had experienced at sea. The city was a peculiar place. The dock was a place made of small white buildings with thatched roofs. Behind those were narrow streets full of larger walled courtyards and businesses with firm triangular tiled roofs that curved to the centre point. In the centre was a narrow and squared building that towered, like a fortification on top of a mound, narrowing as it got taller, surrounded by trees. Han’s guess was it was some sort of fortress.
“That’s Shimabara Castle, it’s ruled by the Arima Clan”.
“It’s nothing like I’ve seen before”, Hans replied.
“Nothing you’ll see will be, these people are warlords;”.
“But it’s a city, yes?”, Han’s inquired, curious about the place.
“There’s no council here”.
“Why? our lands used to be like that”, he had a point. Some were still like that. Growing up, Hans was told stories about how great lords ruled over the land. Things were changing but there were still lords and they still held large amounts of power. The rafts finally made an abrupt halt, rocking the passengers forward and slowly each of them disembarked, Himmel and Hans exiting first. They walked a short distance on a wooden palisade before coming to the entrance into the main city, a peculiar looking man in robes waited there. He had a large bald spot with a ponytail sticking out on the top; like an island surrounded by ocean. He wasn’t the only one, a lot of males walking around had the same style. He wore a navy blue robe underneath a grey overtop that covered to his waste. It looked like a jacket but was thinly joined to the waist in the front, being sleeveless as an outer garment. The trousers it was connected to flared outwards towards the feet, concealing them. Around his waist was what looked like a white sash and mounted were two handles to holstered swords. They were long, slender and curved in a shallow manner. The man looked at both men and then said something in a language Hans could barely understand, slurring and barking the words at the same time. Himmel replied similarly, barking a series of alien words. Himmel had taught Hans the language before they came, they had enough time on the ship. He picked up something about documents and the reasons for arrival.
The official, that was according to Himmel, eyed Hans up and down and noticed his longsword. After some more conversing, in which Himmel had to shut Hans up, the man let them through.
“Sorry about that, he’s an official for the local lord. They don’t like foreigners”.
“And you tell me that now?”, Hans scoffed in reply.
“I had to stop you talking, it takes a lot for them to believe you’re my bodyguard. They don’t like the thought of us carrying weapons personally, though that hasn’t stopped us from selling to them”. He had a point, our trade from the Dutch wouldn’t have been as important had it not been for the cargo of firearms and silk they were carrying. Unless it was sunflowers, the Shogun didn’t want to know.
“Looks to me like they don’t want danger on their shores”, Himmel nodded in agreement.
“Yeah, they have a lot of Christians here. The last thing they want is to have them armed”.
“That’s a bit absurd given the nature of what we’re doing”,
“That it is Hans, my friend”. Both of them glanced back to see the official taking out an arquebus out of the barrel and inspecting it. After a brief scan, he nodded at both of the crewman who picked up the cargo and carried it to the nearest warehouse.
“It’s a strange world we live in”, Himmel said after sighing, putting a hand around Hans’ shoulder.
“Do they have anything good here?”.
“You’re gonna have to see for yourself as well, it’s called sake”, Hans stayed quiet before opening up.
“Is it good?”
“You could say that”. Hans stopped and looked at Himmel.
“Just a joke, Hans. It’s made from rice”.
“The hell is rice?”
“Ah, you’ve got a lot to see. Remember that drink we had from the Balkans when we were in Vienna? It kind of tastes like that but like beer as well. Come, we’ll go and try it”.
“This place have a tavern?”
“Yes, just play it safe and we’ll be fine”. While they were walking, people stopped and starred. The Portuguese were one thing, the Shogun was used to dealing with them. The Dutch and Germans were another, in Japan they were a rarer breed. Peasants and merchants passing by idly stared at them, Japanese officials glared at them and refused to remove their eyes, all of them holstered swords at the ready.
The tavern was dingy but also warm, the weather being on good terms since it was summer. It was getting dark but it there was still remnants of daylight outside. Embers of light were being opened by torches and lanterns outside, bringing animation to the increasing darkness. A lot of the doors were sliding doors made of paper but some in the coastal city were typically wooden. The sake was good, it has a certain flavour to it which was reminiscent of fruit. Others had scents of a wheat like substance. Either way, it reminding him of the Rakia they had in Vienna except this one didn’t pack as much of a punch, though there was a different kind of push on the throat that took some getting used to. Hans didn’t mind as gulped back to ingest it. There was conversing in the building and laughing; two Japanese men had joined them and decided to help themselves to sake as well; fortunately.
“They have to be officials”, Himmel whispered to Hans. They were funny ones at that. Many an occasion the Europeans had burst out in laughter.
They’re promiscuous, these Japanese, Hans thought to himself; more so than anything back home. The tavern was getting crowded, the owners and their family rushed back and forth to deliver jugs of sake and food to people. Hans had helped himself to some, the dumplings were delicious, some had sweetened meat in them and others took shape of doughy delicacies. More people walked in, it must have been a busy time of week. Most men looked alike and the robes; everyone wore robes here (apart from the few Portuguese, unless they were priests who were hooded most of the time as they made their way to the large cream church). Hans felt like he stood out, though unlike earlier people didn’t take much notice of him now. To them, he was just another foreigner from a land they had never visited. One of the officials they were with gulped their drink and suddenly fell back, crashing into a taller man with frizzy hair. Then, there was commotion. After a brief conversation, the barking got louder and increased as both men began to feverently argue.
“What’s going on?” Han’s said.
“The man’s honour’s been infringed on, our new friend spilled sake on him and he wants compensation; it’s not happening”. Suddenly, the man looked at Hans and Himmel. He barked a few sounds from his mouth but both stayed unmoved.
“I don’t think he likes either of you”, said one of the Japanese men they were sitting with.
“Why is that?”, queried Himmel in Japanese.
“He says you’re a foreign devil”.
“Tell him we’ve done nothing to wrong him, his friend did that”, Hans said to Himmel who relayed it back to the red nosed man who was clearly intoxicated. Himmel replied.
“He says you are a great liar and you will be hurt for your lies and dishonour”. The tavern abruptly went silent, everyone was starring at what was going on. The man barked some more inaudible words at Himmel before shouting in a fit of rage. Himmel reached for his cutlass but Hans stopped him.
“I’ll take care of this one”. Hans got up but before he could take action, the samurai had flipped the small table.
“Shi ga matte iru!”, the man yelled, drawing his sword while pushing his hips back to fasten the draw. Hans had no problem where this was going. He drew his longsword. The samurai assumed a stance, widening his feet and lowering the blade to his waist, holding the grip with both hands; the blade directed towards Hans. Hans stepped his right foot forward, also widening his stance and carried the weight on his front foot, with his blade slightly extended. Both paused, gauging each other’s reactions. The Samurai was the first to act. He flicked the sword upwards as a feint, causing Hans to engage with a block, before swinging down. Hans quickly hoped back while parrying the blow downwards. Accidentally, his leg hit the chair behind and nearly tripped but managed to regain composure before his opponent could do anything. Again, there was a lull; shouting sounded in the background. Everyone hung to their swords, not sure what was about to happen. The samurai switch his stance to an upper one, holding the grip next to this face and grounding himself again. Hans assumed the same footwork as before, this time putting the weight on his back foot, now the right. The samurai came at him again, slicing down with a downward blow. Hans parried the blade to the right and stepped in with the right. Pushing the sword aside, he closed in quickly and thrusted the man’s chest. The blade went through and with some struggle, Hans withdrew it. The man dropped instantly, laying on the floor dead.
“You thrusted him?” Himmel shouted above the murmuring in the room.
“We’re not in fucking Christendom anymore, Hemmel!”, Hans shouted back.
Shock dawned on most faces, anger grew on a few others. As instant as the corpse hit the floor, several men drew their swords. Himmel arose, drawing his cutlass with his right hand. Nevertheless, three of the men on the opposite side of the room went for Hans. Not wanting to be cornered Hans fled out of the building, barging through several people. They may have threatened him but holding a weapon and being pursued, no one was stupid enough. Running to the open street, Hans made sure to move about; the last thing he wanted to be cornered. All three warriors sprinted after him, taking similar stances to the samurai he just killed. Han’s weighted himself equally on both feet. All three rushed to attack him. From holding the sword behind, he swung the blade around, making sure to create wide arcs in the air and cone of defence. All three backed away, unsure of what to do. Hans made sure to keep swinging, deterring anyone who dared come any closer. The moment one warrior tried to flank him, he backed away pivoting both his feet and swinging his blade. What seemed like a lifetime passed, his arms began to feel weighted as the adrenaline decreased, he couldn’t keep it up forever. Suddenly, one of the warriors was struck through the neck with a clean swing before being thrusted through the back. The man screamed in agony as he fell to the ground; unsure of whether to clutch his back or neck. His cry silent as he gargled blood, the dark red gurgling from his mouth. Distracted, both men acted indecisive; one faced Himmel, the other switching between both men. This convenient distraction provided an opening, Hans rushed to the indecisive one. The man, noticing Hans, pointed his sword at him. Hans sidestepped to the right, sliding his sword on his opponents and in the bind wined the blade, flicking it to the right as it stepped to the left. The sword cleanly to away, he swung upwards and landed a clean cut to the head; whether dead or alive, the man fell. Realising he was outnumbered, the final person left fled. No person dared approach either survivor.
“You okay?”, Himmel said to Hans after wiping his blade with the fallen man’s robe.
“You told me to keep my head down”.
“Told you they didn’t like foreigners”, Hans wondered if the pay had been worth it but before he could, Himmel directed him elsewhere.
“I know an inn we can stay in until this blows over”.
“You better be right since you lied about this”.
“What are you talking about, I saved your ass”.
“Thank god”. Both men laughed and walked down the street, making sure to holster their weapons while they did so. A few people had gathered around since the event had garnered attention but took the role of passive observers, no one dared to do anything.