Author’s note: This is my response to the Saucy Wenches Podcast writing prompt of Paper and Tiger. It is also my first foray into the Steampanku genre. I hope you enjoy; any and all criticism would be greatly appreciated, since it is still just a first draft.
Silver Tiger, Part I – Minako
The firebox of the Silver Tiger hissed as the last coals were added for the night; the fire stoked and its smoke flooded the room, disrupting the vision of its crew, and carelessly escaping through vented windows, dancing alongside the rest of the train as it churned along through the eastern sea road. The last remnants of the clouds dissipated as it collided with the rear car.
“It smells like burnt fish and dead mouse.”
Minako sighed as she looked out into the night sky from her seiza kneeling position. It felt like she had been riding for months on end. She shifted her weight from to side until her left leg turned numb, switching left and right as she felt fit. In front of her was an elegant pine knee-high table, food strewn in front of her and the other dining guests. Her stomach grumbled. She refused to eat.
Her words were lost in a sea of chatter amongst the other dinner guests, aristocrats from old Kyoto, all too fascinated with the novelty of the steam engine on which they rode.
“This thing is surreal,” said the owner of a famous inn for magistrates and travelling daimyos.
“It’s long and elegant, like the River Kiso,” said a renowned cartographer.
“It’s giving me a stomach ache,” said Minako.
The dinner party finally turned their heads at the girl’s direction.
“Mii-chan!” Her mother scolded, “Do be polite!”
Minako lowered her head with false apology. “I’m sorry kaa-san, but the concept of rail travel is foreign to me.”
A man wearing a simple kimono of blue and green checks chortled.
“Yes, Misako-sama. The train’s designs were taken from the Dutch, yet its aesthetic Japanese.”
Ichiro Yoshino, the grand architect of Gintora, the Silver Tiger now had the attention of the entire room, and he let them know about it. He reached into a pouch sewed on the inside of one of his sleeves and procured a thin, elongated smoking pike and lit it, taking a sensual drag and letting out a cloud of smoke similarly shaped to the ones coming out of his train.
“Gintora is a work of art. We took from the Dutch the basic principles of steam locomotion; the boiler, the firebox, the smokebox, the valve system, the gears, the cylinder, the wheels. Everything on the inside is European, but the people know yet of it. All they see on the outside is Japanese; the frames tempered from metals mined out from inside Mount Fuji, the panels made of the best-harvested lumber from the forests outside it. No commoner can see the differences; all they see is pure Japanese quality whenever the Silver Tiger rolls by their village.”
Minako scoffed inwardly, hardly impressed with Ichiro’s display of self-satisfaction. She was born and raised exposed to the old man’s work, having lived in the Emperor’s palace her whole life. She cradled her arms to herself as she remembered pictures of her home as Ichirio droned on about the train’s lavish design. As a chill from the night scenery crept onto the back of her smooth, exposed neck, she shivered, remembering the coldness of the winters in her private chambers in the Emperor’s palace, reactively heated by nearby vents. Back then, she welcomed the luxury, but was haunted by its rumbling, which seemed to echo throughout the whole palace. She remembered the halls lavishly decorated with old paintings and poems inked on archaic canvases, and the emerald hue of carefully pruned bonsais; their beauty perverted by indoor tracks that ran endlessly from hall to hall, tea-serving automations, platforms and chairs on self-propelling wheels, and the tumbling of a boiler room in the lowest levels of the basement, eerily drumming a beat of change in her father’s empire. BADOOM. BOOM. BADOOM BOOM.
The sounds from her memory suddenly merged with the sounds of the locomotive as it entered a stretch of open desert. CHUGGA CHOOM. CHUGGA CHOOM. CHUGGA CHOOM.
Minako snapped back to reality, instantly setting her mind back on her dinner, just in time for Ichiro to finish out his long-winded speech.
“Tonight marks the maiden journey of Gintora, and what better occasion than to transport Minako-sama from Kyoto to Edo for her wedding.”
Minako’s mother beamed. Her chest rose with pride as she took a sip of tea with the signature grace that all Empresses before her exuded. A wedding between her precious daughter and the Shogun would become her legacy, a marked moment in history that would signify change in Japan forever, a change she did not understand, but readily accepted, if it meant eternal glory for her family.
The rest of the dinner party followed suit, continuing with poetic banter about the pre-boom days in Kyoto, and how moving everything of political worth to Edo was the right thing for Japan as a nation. If it weren’t for the Shogun and his pro-industrial decree, they probably would have been forced into signing the open-door treaty with the pink-skinned beasts from across the ocean, landing on Japanese shores in Black Ships several years ago. With Minako’s arranged marriage to the Shogun Lord’s son, Deikyo, Japan’s pedestal as an industrial power in the East would be cemented for generations to come.
Minako, however, had other plans in mind. She gently dabbed her mouth with a handkerchief, and turned to the Empress. “Kaa-san, I will return shortly, I must freshen up.”
Her mother nodded, “Alright, but please take Sabu with you.”
From the corner, appearing as if from nowhere, a ball-jointed, doll-like figure rolled on wheels towards Minako, nearly tipping over at times due to the rocking of the boxcar. It slowly raised one arm towards the princess, then rotated on its waist towards the paper screen door.
“P-lea-se, co-me, th-is, way, desu.”
Sabu the rotated again on its waist, angling its wheels parallel to the dinner table, and slowly rolled on its own towards the slider, calculating and adjusting its path along the way. Misako followed suit, trying her best to conceal her bewilderment of the obscene situation. She bowed politely to Sabu, literally number three, in a way that she would to a living person. Finally, she was gone.
Misako disappeared into the dim corridor outside of the dining room. She carefully treaded through the tatami, past pairs of paper gaslights, carefully examining the characters painted on each.
Progress. Future. Enlightenment. Power. Change.
Misako was forever haunted by these words, suddenly overcome with grief. She escaped to a dressing closet equipped with a gold-framed mirror, its border chiselled into a circular dragonscale pattern.
She stared at her reflection, gazing upon saddened azure eyes, rounded cheekbones, and full pouting lips, pink like the cherry blossoms of her garden back home. Minako reached out towards the full-length mirror and ran her hands down the image of her kimono, soullessly manufactured silk from a factory in Nara, south of the old capital. It was coloured in vibrant shades of purple in the background, the foreground depicting a geisha holding a telescope and looking into the stars. She was beautiful. She was melancholy.
I cannot live in this Japan anymore!
She turned around and saw the portcullis of the room and struggled to push. As it opened with a creak, the howling wind crashed into the dressing room with violent temperament, throwing Misako off-balance temporarily. She grabbed tight onto the brass frame of the circular window, and pulled herself towards the opening. She set one foot on a nearby furnace, slipped, and nearly stumbled to the floor, hanging by her arms on the opening. She kicked off the pair of lacquered geta on her feet so that the tabi underneath would get a better grip.
On her second attempt, she finally climbed high enough to manoeuvre her way through the window, and positioned herself just enough so that she could take one last look at the scenery as it blurred past her, as expected of the Japan she no longer knew.
With one last effort, she looked up at the full moon to pray her last goodbyes. And when she did, she could not see the moon goddess. She saw demons.
Bandits. Riding atop the roof of the Silver Tiger.