Flower Spelling - Chapter 44
Chapter 44 – Kobe Naval Training
Bunkyu 3rd year marked a period of rapid political change, with the Choshu clan’s drive to expel the barbarians from the country, the expulsion of the Choshu by the Aizu and Satsuma clans in response, and the convening of a council of lords to govern the affairs of the country.
In the first year of the Genji era, the council meeting collapsed prematurely due to disagreements. In their place, the political leadership of the time was dominated by the likes of Hitotsubashi Yoshinobu, Matsudaira Katamori, the Kyoto Shugoshoku, and Matsudaira Sadaaki, the Kyoto Shoshidai.
While the political situation in Kyoto lingered, foreign powers decided to launch a joint retaliatory strike against Choshu for its expulsion of the barbarians in May of the previous year.
In April, in the last days of the cherry blossom season, Katsu Rintaro and his apprentice Sakamoto Ryoma, who had been in Nagasaki to negotiate a reprieve from the attack, arrived at the landing-place, Kobe Naval Training Center after a two-month journey.
This vast site, built at the behest of Katsu, was under the direct control of the Shogunate and was intended to provide naval training for shogunate retainers and hatamoto. However, having only been completed in February, preparations were not yet in place, and full-scale operations were not expected to commence until next month.
It was approximately six streets north of here. Along a quiet country road with fields of cotton and wheat, near the Ikuta Forest, lies the Kobe Naval. This private school for young people, regardless of their status or origin, who aspired to join the navy, was founded by Katsu. Originally the school was located in Osaka, but due to its poor location, it was moved to this more convenient location as a temporary measure until a training centre could be built.
When Katsu and Sakamoto stepped in, they found a group of young students in their twenties practicing how to fold a sail using a full-scale model of a sailing mast in the square.
“How’s everyone doing?”
“Teacher Katsu! And Ryoma! It’s been a long time. How did it go?”
At the sight of the two, a crowd of students flocked around them.
“It’s going well.”
Looking around contentedly, Katsu noticed a small figure carrying a dismounted sail, tottering precariously on her own, without joining the circle of students.
“Hey, hey, Ryoma. Unless my eyes have become senile, isn’t that a girl?”
“Haha, you found out.”
Sakamoto did not look offended, but rather amused.
“You see, she is the stranded girl that we picked up in Osaka a while ago. She wanted to lend her assistance somehow, so I asked her to do some chores at the school, and before I knew it she was studying ships with the boys. Her English skills are far better than mine, and she has caught on very quickly.”
“Hmm, that’s encouraging. Then go and get her, too. After a break, I will report on Nagasaki.”
“I understand. Hey, Ms. Misaki! Take a short break! Nagasaki’s delicacies are available.”
The woman called Misaki blinked speculatively, then gave a coy nod.
After Katsu had gone back to his dormitory.
Misaki left the private school alone and headed for the sea.
At sunset, the beach was silent and deserted, as if the morning bustle of the fishermen had been a lie.
Sitting down on a nearby rock, she gingerly opened the wrapping she held in her hand. From inside emerged an eerily black, shiny, solid object, tinged red by the sunset.
“That, it was from before, right?”
Even with Sakamoto’s voice suddenly approaching from behind, Misaki was not alarmed and slowly turned around. Perhaps it was because she somehow had a hunch that he was coming.
Sakamoto always knew when Misaki was feeling down and came to see her. Most of the time, he would bring with him a sweet treat or a rare imported item.
On one occasion, he shocked Misaki by bringing along a small puppy.
“What happened, that puppy――”
The warm animal, which Sakamoto half-heartedly handed to her, settled easily in Misaki’s arms and pressed the tip of its wet nose against hers. When she gently stroked his soft, reddish-brown fur, he reciprocated with a lick on the cheek.
When Sakamoto saw Misaki’s countenance at that time, he cast off his eyes for a moment as if he was stunned, and then burst into a joyous expression.
“What is it?”
“I’ve never seen you laugh before.”
Misaki pressed her hand to her cheek as if she were being told she was a phantom. The muscles in her cheeks, which had not been moved in some time, tensed as if they had been pulled tight.
“It’s much better to smile like that. A smile is the best thing for a girl.” Sakamoto laughed vigorously and slapped Misaki on the back.
But unlike that day, Sakamoto didn’t do anything, he merely sat down next to her in silence.
“This was given to me for protection by a former friend of mine.”
Misaki gently stroked the object in her hand – the cold barrel of a small gun – with great care.
“Before I met Mr. Ryoma, I was in Kyo―― at the Choshu domain residence… You are not surprised?”
“I guess so.” Sakamoto rubbed his neck. “Whenever Choshu was mentioned you listened attentively, and I can see that. Earlier, when you heard that the attack on Choshu had been postponed, you must have been overwhelmingly relieved.”
“Was it that obvious? About me.”
“I am too slow to recognize it.”
Misaki chuckled to herself. “My real name is Misaki, but I have another name as well. It was given to me by someone whom I owe a lot to, and I have been called by that name for a long time, so it has become something natural for people to refer to me by it.”
――That was “Sogetsu.”
It was as if the name had triggered a flood of memories.
The story started off in the present day when she ended up in the old city of Edo. Being picked up by the landlady of Tatsumi Residence. Her days at the Choshu domain.
And then there was that August.
Sogetsu, who fled the clan residence that day――Misaki――wandered aimlessly.
Not even knowing how many days had passed, unaware of her own location.
Abandoning all thought, she wandered on and on, until she reached the town of Osaka. By chance she stumbled into the precincts of a deserted temple, where she slumped down, starving and fatigued, barely capable of walking.
Am I going to die like this… Dying in the wild is an inconceivable way to die in this day and age… I don’t care anymore.
Lying down, she shut her eyes.
How long had passed?
When she awoke with a start, several men in a rough atmosphere stood before her, flattening Misaki’s cheeks with their chilly blades.
“What, are you alive?”
“A bit filthy, but it should sell for a decent price.”
Mouthing off, one of them extended a hand to her face.
Even she herself did not know which part of her still had this strength.
But before she realized it, Misaki had brushed off the man’s hand and was running at full speed.
A woman’s legs were no match for a place she had no knowledge of. Soon enough, she was on her tail and cornered in a deserted alley.
“Sister, there’s no point in running away. Just give up and go to…”
The man who was about to comment swallowed his words in mid-sentence. He looked at the short barrel in Misaki’s hand.
“Oi, this must be a joke.”
“What’s a person like you doing with that…”
Misaki could no longer hear what the man was saying.
She simply held her breath and pulled the trigger.
The sound of gunfire reverberated through the streets and with a buzzing sound, the birds simultaneously took flight.
One moment there was silence, the next the man was staring in disbelief at the blood running down his arm. Then, with a convulsive scream, they scrambled for their lives.
But then Sakamoto appeared at the other end of the line.
Sakamoto, who had followed Katsu to Osaka, was the first to rush to the scene upon hearing the shot.
“Hey, are you alive? Pull yourself together.”
When Sakamoto found Misaki in a half-hearted state, he didn’t ask any questions and brought her back to the naval training school organized by Katsu.
Katsu too said, “I have no clue what happened to you, but there must be a good reason for a woman to be travelling alone with a short barrel. If she has nowhere else to go, she can stay here.”
They gladly accepted Misaki.
At first, Misaki kept to herself and refused to open up to anyone. When she learned that it was Sakamoto Ryoma who rescued her, she even resented the fate that had befallen her. However, the free and open atmosphere of the Naval Training Center naturally loosened Misaki’s firmly sealed heart.
“… I had a hard time in Kyo, so I ran away. I wanted to return home. But I had no destination, and soon everything became inconsequential. But when I thought I would be killed, I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to die… I wonder why.”
“You see, it’s natural for anyone to yearn to live,” Sakamoto said simply. “Dying gracefully is one way of living, but I believe that human beings should struggle to live until the end of their lives, even if it is unpleasant. No matter how cautious one is, death may happen by accident. Therefore, we should do the best we can while we are still alive.”
Sakamoto trailed off and looked straight at Misaki.
“… You want to go back to Kyo, don’t you?”
Misaki bit her lip and cast her gaze down.
“Tomorrow I will follow Teacher Katsu to Kyo. If you would like to return, you can come with me.”
“To Kyo…” Momentarily, her feelings wavered. But she quickly shook her head. “No… I cannot go. I am still in the process of learning to sail, and I haven’t done anything to repay Mr. Ryoma.”
“Don’t worry about me!” Sakamoto suddenly interrupted Misaki’s words with a fierce tone. This was the first time Misaki had witnessed his furious expression. “If you want to learn to sail, you can do it anywhere. But that’s not what you really want to do, is it? What are you babbling about? If you miss this opportunity, you may never meet them again.”
“But I am afraid!” Misaki’s eyes were wet with tears as she screamed. “I don’t know what to say when I meet them. I’m afraid they’ll shout at me and say, ‘What are you doing here?’”
“Then go and get yelled at! Get a good look at his face. If you want to stay here, go ahead. But do you honestly wish to stay? You won’t have another chance of meeting them again. Don’t you want to see them again?
“… I want to meet them. I want to.”
With large tears, Misaki finally let out her true feelings.
How much she regretted having left the clan residence.
How worried was she for everyone in Choshu that she couldn’t sleep.
The truth was that she wished to return.
She hoped to apologize and, this time, be of assistance to them.
“It’s settled then.”
Sakamoto caressed Misaki’s sobbing face as softly as he would have done to a young child.
“‘Then you best hurry up and get ready. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
When Misaki told the students that she would be leaving for Kyo, they were delighted to bid her farewell.
And then the morning of the departure.
Misaki pulled out a set of kimonos from the back of her basket. Even though she sold everything else to eat, she couldn’t let go of this one. She put on the sleeves and tied them tightly at the waist.
“Mr. Ryoma, I’m ready.”
“You, your appearance…”
Sakamoto’s mouth fell agape at the sight of the figure emerging from the room.
She was attired in a dark blue lined kimono and a silver-matte hakama designed for men, both of which were faded but of high quality.
“This is me, Sogetsu.”
Sogetsu gazed straight at Ryoma and flashed him a brilliant smile.
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