A resonating report of cannon fire split the still air, and fire lit up the night.
A second resonating blast echoed the first.
No one would ever question why the world had no name. For what was there to name? You named a place to distinguish it from other places, only there were no other places, so why should it be distinguished?
A cheering little blue planet, as seen from space, dotted by countless islands. Almost straight up on it’s, the world existed with few temperature extremes. Everywhere, all across the planet, the weather was mostly mild. Storms raged across the seas, but it wasn’t often to hot or to cold.
And there was always wind.
Which, for a windjammer like storm, was a fairly important thing.
Arms Master Sarah Leon clenched her teeth and waited for the report. From where she stood she could see all up and down the length of the ship, the entire port-side battery where a dozen crewmen struggled to replaced the ammunition cartages on the steel weapons, almost blind in the near darkness. A few dim lamps here and there, one for every two cannons, and the light of the stars were all that pushed back the black.
And of course the crimson fire that raced out of the barrels with each concussive blast.
“CANNONIERS!” she began. “RE—”
Sarah turned angrily to glare at Taladaga, gunnery sergeant for the port side. Normally as Arms Master Sarah outranked him, but anyone could give the hold order, basic safety being what it was.
“Captain Ryo,” he whispered.
Instead of trying to explain, Taladaga merely aimed a thumb over his left solider where a sleepy figure stumbled out of the darkness, rubbing her eyes and finally holding them open with her fingers, turning a piercing green gaze on Sarah.
“Gunnery drills,” Sarah reported.
“At three in the morning?” Ryo replied darkly.
“Allow me to explain,” Sarah began. “We received a report that the Pirates have launched a thirty-six gun warship. Now their cannons are muzzle-loading, but they can still fire a devastating broadside every two minutes—”
“Get to the part where you felt the need to fire cannons at three in the morning,” Ryo snarled. “Before I’m awake enough to be displeased.”
“If we can fire four broadsides in two minutes, we can match them shot-for-shot,” Sarah explained quickly. “I chose to perform the drill at this time to test the crew’s reactions under less than ideal conditions. If they can do it in the dark, rousted from their beds, they can do it under fire.”
“I see,” Ryo replied darkly. “Continue.”
Sarah gulped and nodded, then turned back to the gun deck.
“CANNONIERS!” she began with a bellow.
* * *
Wind in her hair, not a cloud in the sky, and a flat blue ocean spread from horizon to horizon. Ryo grinned, grabbed a rope, and waved to the helmsmen to begin.
The windjammer Storm turned gracefully, cutting a green swath through the blue waters. Left, then right, then left again, zigzagging with incredible precision.
Ryo hung off the side, staring proudly at her work. By using the sails to steer along with a new type of rudder, the Storm could turn more sharply than any other ship in the fleet.
So sharp was the turn that the pitch of the deck was too much for anyone to keep their feet, and Ryo hung from a rope to keep from toppling over the side. The Revenge and the Renegade followed close behind, not copying the Storm’s maneuver but rather eating her wake.
The men on the deck of the storm had it the worst. Each team had to essentially hang from the cable, then dash across the deck, back and forth in an intricate ballet. But it was all worth it, in the end.
The Storm, the Revenge, and the Renegade, Ryo’s own corner of the Red Fleet. Home-making was for sissies, she was a commander now!
Winning respect wasn’t easy, but nothing worth doing ever was. Ryo had climbed the ranks of the fleet faster than anyone, and at the tender age of twenty-one, she commanded three ships, and the respect of every man and woman, Ninja or Pirate, who sailed under her.
The incident the night before hadn’t been as unwelcome as it seemed. Sarah was hand-picked for the post primarily because of that type of thinking, and Ryo was willing to miss half a night’s sleep to keep her crew sharp.
This was what she’d dreamed of all her life. Not the telling people what to do, although that wasn’t without its charms. No, this was belonging, acceptance, and more true friends than she could raise a glass to.
Ryo signaled to the helmsmen to end the maneuver, and the Storm straightened its course. Even in the Red Fleet where her lineage was nary an issue, the road to the top had still been rough. It was ok though; Ryo had long ago accepted that everything was going to be twice as hard for her as it was for anyone else.
She was, after all, the daughter of the Red Fleet’s commander and chief, so every promotion looked like a family favor. And that wasn’t the way they did things in the Red Fleet, or at least it wasn’t supposed to be. But those who knew the young Ninja-Pirate best knew better. Her strength in combat was unmatched, her cunning without equal, and her tactical sense and leadership skills were truly a force to recon with. The Red Fleet had chosen Motius Caspien as its leader for good reasons, now they chose Ryo Sansen for the same.
“I see the ‘captain’ is enjoying herself,” Nenyo commented as he came swaying out of the cabin. “You’re little maneuver almost cost me my best charts.”
“Still sea-sick?” Ryo laughed. “You ain’t the Salty Dog for nothing!”
Nenyo bit his lip and scowled at the nick-name. Salty-Dog was short for Sick-As-A-Dog, which Nenyo frequently was. At first anyway, until Motius gave him some curious pills from off-world. The pills helped a lot, and made life at sea much less of a hell for many people like Nenyo.
Most of the time anyway.
“So where are we?” Ryo asked finally.
“Well, by means of the chronometer, I’d put us about six thousand miles off Port Grodwin,” Nenyo remarked. “And three hundred due-east of
.” Hanging Neck Island
“Who names these places?” Ryo blinked.
“Pirates,” Nenyo replied darkly.
“But we’re in Ninja waters!” Ryo protested.
One of the Pirate crewmen who’d been walking past, gathering up a line, stopped and pointed at Nenyo.
“Tell me why he’s the Navigator again?” the Pirate asked.
“Because he’s the best darn navigator in the fleet,” Ryo replied sinisterly.
“I’m just ribbin ya, Salty,” the Pirate said, elbowing Nenyo playfully. “You, you’re all right.”
“Do they not understand that I hate them?” Nenyo asked as the sailor wandered off.
“They understand,” Ryo grinned. “They just don’t care.”
“You’d think they would,” Nenyo mumbled.
“All that matters is that they know how you feel,” Ryo explained. “That’s the most important part around here. As long as you’re open with your hatred, they can trust you. That’s how the Red Fleet works, we all hate each other but we’re all honest about it, so we’re great friends!”
Nenyo sighed and nodded his understanding, then returned to the chart room. Nenyo was the ship’s navigator, a job he was more than skilled at. It had been a condition, actually, of Ryo’s commission. Not one she argued with, because Nenyo had been her first true friend and shipmate. But such was his regard as a navigator that to waste his skills on just one ship had seemed ludicrous. In a way, Ryo only had her three ships because Nenyo refused to serve under anyone else.
They made a good team, despite the obvious age gap.
In contrast to the Storm’s first mate, who was an impetuous Pirate about a year younger than Ryo. The equality based system of the Red Fleet demanded that the top two positions of any ship be filled by a Ninja and a Pirate. In which order was unimportant, but both sides had to be represented, to ensure an even power distribution.
Sometimes, this created more problems than it solved, when a captain or a first mate couldn’t stand to put aside there differences and run the ship. Sometimes, giving up the years of hatred and indoctrination was too difficult.
For these sorts of people, commands did not last long. In fact, such situations were extremely rare. Usually, to get anywhere past swabbing the decks on a Red Fleet Ship, a Ninja or Pirate had to demonstrate a profound strength of character and willingness to accept his kin.
That part had been easiest for Ryo. What was hard was figuring out which side of the coin she was on, as it were. When building crews, group dynamics played a vital role in assignments. Every effort was made to ensure a perfectly even distribution of men, women, Ninjas, and Pirates.
Being female wasn’t a problem, being half-and-half was.
No one rejected her for it, in fact just the fact that she carried the blood of both sides made her easier to accept in the Fleet. But despite there acceptance of each other, what you were was still important, if only because such a high emphasis was placed on even distribution.
After trying for a while to convince everyone that she was neither, Ryo had finally fallen back on her upbringing. She had been raised Ninja, she subconsciously referred to herself as a Ninja, and she almost always dressed as a Ninja. So for the sake of the Red Fleet, Ryo chose to be a Ninja.
Her first mate was a young man named Adam. Adam never had to choose, he’d grown up in Port Grodwin, in Pirate waters. Ryo had no problem with Adam’s heritage, she just wished she had a first mate who wasn’t so… like her.
“Cap’m!” Adam shouted as he ran across the deck towards her. “Cap’m!”
“Yes, First Mate Adam,” Ryo replied in her most captainy-sounding voice. She didn’t like Adam. Not because he was a Pirate, not because she hadn’t had a choice about his appointment, and not even because she saw in him all the worst qualities she saw in herself. She didn’t like him because he liked her, and despite many warnings and dozens of clouts on the head, he hadn’t gotten the idea. She was the captain, she wasn’t allowed to fraternize with the crew. And she wouldn’t have fraternized with him anyway because he was short and he smelled like feet.
“Urgent radio message,” he reported. “Well not exactly urgent—”
“Just give me the message,” Ryo sighed. She remembered situations like this aboard the Antelope, except she remembered them from the opposite perspective. It was no small wonder old Captain Gaysu hadn’t thrown her overboard before Sarasota-Riot. It was an even greater wonder how no one had done the same to Adam.
Captain Gaysu, there was a life truly and fully lived, except those decades he spent drunk on a dock in Ninpou. Gaysu had sailed further and dreamed bigger than any man Ryo knew, and was rewarded with a completely rat-free ship. It didn’t seem like much, but the old man’s spirit was a constant source of inspiration to Ryo.
He had died just a year earlier. His ship, the Crazy Horse, had been caught up in a sudden squall and half the deck crew washed overboard in seconds. Gaysu bravely took the wheel and despite all odds, guided the ship through the storm. As she crested the final wave and the crew rejoiced, the old man’s heart gave out. He was buried at sea with honor, a gallant hero of the Fleet if ever one lived.
To those that knew him best, it was the most fitting end anyone could hope for. Gaysu had died at sea, with his boots on, at the helm of his ship. A life lived and celebrated, not mourned.
In her more philosophical moments, Ryo would have liked to go out in the same fashion. Not a glorious death in combat while still young, but to live life to it’s fullest extent and finish before she became useless.
Although in her regular moods she planned simply to live forever. So far, so good.
“The message is just this,” Adam panted, breaking Ryo out of her thoughts and philosophies. “Proceed immediately to Red Base Alpha, best possible speed.”
“That’s not exactly subtle,” Ryo commented.
“It’s signed by Motius Caspien,” Adam huffed.
“Well then,” Ryo grinned. “Best possible speed to Ninpou.”
“But that’s not exactly—”
“It’s still our mission,” Ryo cut in. “Orders or not. Don’t worry, it’s along the way, Alpha Base is north of Ninpou.”
“Ninpou is on the South Pole!” Adam shouted. “Everything’s north of Ninpou! Alpha base, meanwhile, is nearer the equator! The two are hardly compatible objectives.”
“You’re just scared to go to the Ninja city,” Ryo giggled.
“Yes, I am,” Adam admitted without hesitation. “But my point still stands.”
“We’ve got a good wind on this heading,” Ryo shrugged. “We’ll water at Sarasota Riot in a fortnight, and be at Ninpou within twenty-one days. From there it should only take us five or six weeks to reach Alpha base if the winds are favorable. It would take us… maybe six weeks if we changed heading now, and that’s only if the wind is good. I say we finish our mission.”
* * *
Ryo took a deep breath and grinned, inhaling the pleasant aroma of Sarasota-Riot. The island hadn’t changed a bit in the seven years since she’d last set foot on it, and Ryo liked it that way.
She turned to her crew which was filling the water kegs and nodded approvingly.
“Make camp by the stockade,” she ordered. “I’m going into the jungle for a bit. In an hour’s time, send three volunteers to pick fruit.”
She waited for any questions, then nodded approvingly.
“Bye!” she waved.
Ryo tromped off down the path, feeling again somewhat a naïve little girl on her way to pick fruit.
“Why d’ya suppose she said to wait an hour?” Adam asked, once Ryo was out of earshot.
“Captain needs some alone time,” Kuma replied. Kuma was a surly Ninja, born along the equator into a family of fighters, a fourth generation warrior. His mother was a Samurai on the High Council in Ninpou. He had joined the Red Fleet to escape her high expectations.
“I’d like some ‘alone time’ with her!” Adam chuckled.
Nenyo elbowed him sharply, forcing the young Pirate strait into Aaron, a slightly older, more mature Pirate, who elbowed him just as hard.
“She is our captain,” Kuma said calmly. “Such talk is disrespectful.”
Adam took a draft of brandy and made a sound of enjoyment.
“Captain or not, she’s a babe,” he remarked. “A full blown cutie.”
“Have you ever had the bones in your nose driven up into your brain?” Kuma asked.
“Shutting up,” Adam reported.
Nenyo was glad Kuma was there. Adam often spoke this way, when Ryo or any of the other women were not around. Nenyo made threats, but everyone knew he lacked the courage to back them up.
Ryo wasn’t captain to Nenyo, she was friend. He called her captain, took orders from her, and always maintained the distance that was required for a firm command. In a way he envied Adam, for his openness in his views. In another, more accurate way, he pitied the man, because he was an idiot.
At the end of the day, Adam really didn’t have the respect of the crew. He carried out the duties of the first mate capably, but when the chips were down and the cards were on the table, almost every other senior officer was looked to before the young Pirate.
It was all for Ryo’s sake though, that they put up with Adam. She needed a first mate that the crew wouldn’t respect more than her, otherwise her command might be questioned at the wrong moment, which could be disastrous.
At that very moment, however, Ryo was tromping up the narrow path toward the headlands of the small island without a care in the world. She remembered the trail well, not a single blade of grass seemed to have changed since she last came this way.
The only thing that had changed was her. She was taller now and had broader shoulders, and as such had quite a harder time squeezing through the narrow entrance to the hidden cave.
The sun was a lot higher in the sky now than it had been the first time Ryo came this way, so there was a lot less light reflecting off the water and the crystals. It made the whole cave seem eerie, less magical and more foreboding.
Ryo sat on a small rock and looked around.
“Oh mysterious stranger,” she sighed. “I suppose I really couldn’t have expected you to still be here.”
She had never forgotten the encounter in the cave, with the strange man and his magical sword. He knew her name, even though she hadn’t said it. Thinking back now she was positive there was something familiar about him, but she had never been able to place it. The only thing she knew was that he was not of her world.
She’d been thirteen at the time, sailing aboard the Antelope. The first trip out, those magical few weeks at sea; but she’d been so busy trying to find herself that she hadn’t stopped to enjoy it.
Still, years later, his words echoed now in this cave.
“Not luck; it’s what you do that makes you a hero,” she whispered.
* * *
The Storm sailed gracefully into
under its own power. After Sarasota-Riot, Ryo had dismissed the Revenge and the Renegade to make better time. The Storm was the fastest ship in the entire Red Fleet; she’d made it from Sarasota-Riot to Ninpou in eighteen days without the other ships to slow her down. Okaeshi Harbor
When the Red Fleet had first sailed into
six years ago, there had been a huge uproar. That day only Ninjas went ashore, and the Samurai spoke to Motius from the dock. Okaeshi Harbor
Today, Ryo prepared to go ashore with her navigator and first mate by her side.
“I don’t like this,” Adam said plainly. “The Captain and the First Mate shouldn’t both be off the ship.”
“Yur just scared a going to Ninpou,” Ryo jeered.
“Yes, I am,” Adam nodded as he pulled his red shirt on. “I am afraid of going to the city of Ninjas.”
“There ain’t nothing to worry yourself over,” Ryo waved. “I’ll be there. Besides, times have changed. Just think about it, you’re about to take part in a moment in history, you’re about to be the very first Pirate in the Ninpou.”
“I’d rather not be a Pirate in Ninpou at all thank you,” Adam scoffed. “I’d also like to keep my head!”
“Oh, that heads not going anywhere, not with that pretty lil’ neck of yours,” Ryo teased. “Nice shirt by the way, very red.”
“Thank you,” Adam replied and fiddled with his collar. “But seriously—”
“You’re coming,” Ryo told him. “It’s an order.”
With that Ryo waved to have the gang plank lowered, and she, Nenyo, and the very reluctant Adam stepped onto the Ninja dock.
The harbor looked much the same as it had when Ryo was a child. It was the sort of place that just didn’t change. Some of the buildings had been repainted, others weathered more, and of course the ships changed every day. But the basic place hadn’t changed a bit.
The City Watch was waiting for them at the edge of the dock, right where the wood ended and the stone began. Ryo approached them boldly, and pulled a small bag of gold off her belt.
“For the port fees,” she shouted, and threw the bag to the first Watchmen. “And a little something for you and the boys to drink up. Now be a good man and run inform the High Counsel of our arrival, I’m sure they’ll want to know that Ryo Sansen has returned to Ninpou.
The guard caught the gold and held it out before him as though he were afraid it might explode. Then he glared at Ryo, and she could see his face form a snarl under his mask.
“The Counsel is already aware of your presence,” the Ninja said. “There has been great fear in the hearts of the people since your ship with its red sails was spotted on the horizon.”
“You can sail faster with red sails,” Ryo shrugged. “So what’s your business here, Ninja? I do hope your small band hasn’t been sent to stop us.”
“On the contrary,” the Ninja replied darkly. “Our assignment is to escort you. You are not free to wander at will through Ninpou, where you go, we shall go.”
“Wonderful!” Ryo clapped happily. “We welcome your presence. Come, let us go—”
“Wait,” the Ninja held up his hand for silence. “He cannot come.”
“What him?” Ryo pointed to Nenyo. “S’ok, he was born here—”
“Not him!” the Ninja scowled. “The other—the red one.”
“He ain’t red, he’s my side-kick,” Ryo laughed. “But seriously, my First Mate comes ashore with me today, so let’s not make an incident of it. K?”
“He is a Pirate!” the Ninja snarled. “No Pirate has ever set foot in this city!”
“Get ready to witness an historic event,” Ryo replied.
Without taking her eyes off the Ninja, she grabbed Adam’s collar and shoved him from the dock to the cobbled stone road.
A Pirate was now standing in the city of Ninjas.
* * *
“I’m not liking this place,” Adam whispered as they walked the streets of Ninpou.
Everywhere around them women screamed, children cried, and brave Ninjas hid behind there masks. Despite the ring of guards surrounding the party, the sight of a Pirate wandering the streets of the city of Ninjas inspired tremendous fear.
Ninpou was the name given to both the island and the city that covered it. It was a great, round island situated squarely on south pole, with mountains rising thousands of feet out of the ocean. The city by the same name ringed the lowlands and covered the shore. There were harbors everywhere, in bays and where huge rivers entered the sea, turlly the island had no lack of good anchorage. Every single mountainside that faced outwards was covered by terraces. The people had started terracing early, and as the population grew, so to did it’s need for food. But the ancestors were smart, and planned ahead, so the terrace system grew with the population.
The inner valleys were dominated by the wood farms. Trees had been cultivated for longer than anyone remembered; Ninpou was not just a population center, but also a ship-building hub. There wasn’t much to farming trees, besides plant them far apart, and track their growth. The stronger trees were kept alive longer and their seeds harvested to replant the cuts, and so had it been for generation upon generation. This way had been maintained, until the great interior was filled with the strongest, healthiest, and fasted-growing trees anywhere in the world.
Enough to supply the fleets of ships constantly being built.
Ninja ship-building was a craft and trade older than time itself, perhaps. Well probably not, but old all the same. In the shrouded mists of history, it had been the great strength of the proud and noble city.
Ninpou, city of
“It ain’t so bad,” Ryo waved. “See? Over there’s where I went to school, and that’s the market where me mommy shopped—ooh! And down that road’s where I got beaten up by six older boys when I was ten! Ahh the memories…”
They continued at length through the paved streets, Nenyo brooding silently and Adam shaking like a leaf, and Ryo just laughing and pointing out familiar sights.
Finally, they turned down one narrow road and came upon a sight that made Ryo sigh with nostalgia.
She hadn’t lain eyes on the house since she was thirteen, and she remembered not even taking the time to look back that last morning before she left. Seven years had not been kind to the old homestead, apparently no one else had wanted to live there after Frunawho left, and the place had just been sitting abandoned every since.
There was some evidence of fire, as though someone had attempted to burn the place, but it looked old and whoever it was had clearly been unsuccessful.
The windows had been broken in, and looters made off with whatever Frunawho hadn’t taken with her. The poor women hadn’t had much, just a few precious keepsakes. Everything that really mattered she took with her, and Motius had provided his true love with whatever she needed once aboard the
. There was little need for the every-day things. Dishes, linens, most were not worth the trouble of carting off. Saratoga
Ryo giggled and pushed through the broken door. Adam was right on her heals, and Nenyo close behind. The Watchmen waited outside.
“I never did get to see the inside of your house,” Nenyo commented as he poked absently about. “Must have been quaint.”
“I never seen a Ninja house,” Adam said quietly.
Ryo, meanwhile, couldn’t bring words to her lips. She knew it was coming, she’d been anticipating this event for years now; pretty much ever since the day she first realized she was an adult. When they came back to Ninpou before, she staye don the ship. She was just over fourteen then, not concerned with nostalga or keepsakes; she had everything she cared about and was much to busy looking forward to bother with looking back.
But she knew, someday, she could have to confront that old house again. The little home had been her sanctuary; that warm shelter of safety and love. The outside world disappeared at her doorstep, once inside… she was merely home.
But this wasn’t home anymore.
This was a burned out shell, a husk that sat abandoned, because no one would now live within it’s walls. Not even the homeless beggers or ruffians, though few in number, would take shelter in a place like this.
For this site had housed the half-breed girl, it was forever tainted.
But it wasn’t tainted for Ryo. Tears were running down her cheeks and she had to choke back a sob. So many memories filled this place, so many wonderful, wonderful memories of a childhood she missed dearly.
There was the nook where she’d slept—it was so small now! She realized with a giggle that her bed had been just barely big enough when she was a short thirteen year old, by the time she was fourteen she could not have been able to fit in it!
The cabinets had all been smashed open, but in her mind’s eye Ryo say them exactly as they had always been: neatly closed and ornately decorated. Frunawho’s house had always been tidy and fastidiously organized, many of Ryo’s childhood memories included stern lectures on putting things away.
She didn’t miss any of her belongings now. She had finer things, and while sentiment was very important to Ryo, she didn’t miss any of the material things of her old life. What she missed was being a child, being carefree and innocent.
She missed not having hands stained with blood.
“Ryo?” Nenyo asked cautiously.
Ryo snapped instantly out of her nostalgic thoughts and gulped violently, swallowing her tears. Her throat hurt, but she managed to regain her composure in a few seconds.
“Just thinking,” Ryo smiled. “Well, enough sight seeing folks, lets get to the counsel!”
“You’ve only kept them waiting for hours,” Nenyo mumbled.
“What’s that?” Ryo asked suspiciously.
“I said you’ve only kept them waiting for hours,” Nenyo snapped. “You heard me.”
“Yeah, that’s why I have a navigator,” Ryo nodded. “To steer me towards important appointments. Well, tally-ho then!”