Two kingdoms split the land of a small island in the sea. The northern half of the island is ruled by the kingdom of Senan, while the southern half is ruled by Belquat. For 200 years the kingdoms have been at war. Oddly enough, these two kingdoms share an identical caste system. Those of the royalty and nobility are marked by their black hair. Commoners are noted by their red, blond, or brown hair. Below even those are the Ajin, demi-humans with the ears and tails of beasts. Despite their superior strength and abilities, the Ajin are kept as slaves, and made to fight on the front lines of battles. Belquat, with is fertile soil and gentle climate is rich and prosperous. Senan with its harsh winters is poor, and her military is weak. Senan, however, has one great advantage – positioned at the head of the island’s main river, the Tiraus, gives the kingdom a distinct military edge. Regularly, to stem the tide of of the war for even a brief moment, a royal marriage between the two countries occurs and brings a short span of peace. One such marriage opens up Dawn of the Arcana, between Princess Nakaba of Senan, and the second-born Prince Caesar of Belquat. Nakaba is well aware that she is little more than a sacrifice for temporary peace. Caesar knows this as well, but even he is offended that the princess he was sent has red hair. Nakaba expects death will come to her sooner than later, when the people tire of peace, or when someone tires of having the enemy in their midst. Nakaba is not totally alone in this dangerous new world, as her Ajin servant, Loki, has come with her. Loki is clearly more than a mere servant to Nakaba, and she is clearly more than just his master to him; for two people who grew up with no one but each other for company, it’s no wonder they have such a deep friendship. Loki immediately lands himself in hot water when he draws his blades against the contemptuous Prince Caesar in defense of his lady, and again with his mere presence at dinner, in front of a king who loathes his kind. When Nakaba shows up to dinner in the clothes of her countrymen, King Guran is already irritated, but when a lowly Ajin dares to speak to him in her defense, he slashes him across the chest and calls for his death. Loki, of course, will not sit there and let himself be killed, so he escapes with a promise to his lady to return. At the sight of Loki’s blood, Nakaba faints, and dreams of her past while she lies unconscious. As a small child, the ostracized Nakaba lived with Loki and many other Ajin’s and human commoners. King Guran, fearing the strength and skill of the Ajin, ordered the village wiped out. Nakaba awakes in tears, unsure if her dream was just a dream, or a vision of the past. As she wonders when Loki will come back, Caesar comes along to mock her, insisting that her Ajin won’t return. Caesar offers up a wager – if Loki does not return that night, Nakaba will die; if he does, Caesar agrees to pardon him. Annoyed that his wife has so much faith in another man, and a mere Ajin at that, Caesar decides it’s time to show her just whose wife she is – the wife of a prince. Loki arrives in the nick of time, but a distraught Nakaba refuses to allow another drop of blood to be shed. Surprisingly, Caesar keeps his promise to pardon Loki, though it will take some time. As Nakaba fusses over the injured Loki, Caesar realizes that Loki sees Nakaba as more than just his mistress, and he’s not too happy about it, though at the present he doesn’t understand why. As he wanders the halls of the palace, his brother’s fiancée pleads with him to speak out against the upcoming marriage and partner with her to take the throne away from his brother (her father commands the army, which would be extremely important for the one who becomes king). Annoyed because he has no desire to be king, and that his brother is getting to marry the beautiful Louise while he’s stuck with an enemy red-hair, he goads his brother into entering an upcoming jousting competition against him. The prize will be a kiss from Nakaba, something that does not go unnoticed by Loki. Nakaba doesn’t understand the spectacle of the tournament, as she comes from a poor country where the money for such lavishness would be better served elsewhere. She gets a quick lesson from Caesar on how such an event gives the citizens a welcome respite, and allows local craftsmen to show off their skills. During the tournament, Nakaba has a foreboding vision about her husband, but he brushes off her concern. Just when Nakaba is convinced that the danger is over, Loki bursts into the jousting ring, intent on challenging Caesar. Loki easily bests Caesar, who laments that no matter how hard h works, he’ll never be as strong as an Ajin. What’s more, as a child, he was told not to even bother, as the commoners were meant for labor, while royalty is meant to stand above others. Caesar, confused as to why the weak were allowed to rule over the strong, developed quite the complex. When he spots Nakaba giving Loki the victor’s kiss, he is ready to brush her off as being inconstant as any other woman, and preferring the stronger man over the weaker one, but she surprises him completely by saying the very words he has always wanted to hear.
While she’s no Shurei Hong (The Story of Saiunkoku) or Amir (A Bride’s Story), Nakaba seems like she’ll be able to hold her own quite well. There’s a couple of scenes in this first volume that made me cheer and shout out a little “You go, girl!” One of my favorite scenes occurs just after Nakaba and Caesar marry. Caesar is manhandling Nakaba’s hated red hair, and then insults her in front of her attendant, the Ajin Loki. Loki draws blades on the prince, whose bodyguards rush out immediately. Nakaba smacks Loki roughly across the face and declares, “Whatever else he may be, this man is my husband. That makes him your master as well.” Then we get this awesome scene:
Later, in another burst of kick assery, when her new husband attempts to force himself on her, Nakaba draws a blade on him and declares that though as a prince he may always get what he wants, there will be one thing in the kingdom he will never have. Can we get three cheers for Nakaba? I already love her. The rest of the book is fairly average, unfortunately, but Nakaba really stands out. There’s a lot more going on below the surface, and there are several things hinted at. Foremost is the power of the Arcana, which Nakaba seems to possess, though the power itself and why Nakaba has it has not yet been made clear (other than it has something to do with “time”). Right now she just passes out in moments of extreme stress, and has one brief vision of the future. Her past is a tragic one, and she has lived a hard life being ostracized, feared, and hated by her own people. In a world where royalty is known by their black hair, and those with red, blond, or brown hair are commoners, it’s unthinkable for a princess to have red hair, so it appears that as a child, she wasn’t even allowed to live in the palace at first, and when she did, she was shut away and kept out of sight. The kingdom of Belquat finds her presence a near insult, and immediately whispers of contempt and looks of animosity follow her around the palace. Due to her upbringing, she has grown used to such attention, and it hardly bothers her anymore. A strong young woman, she is prepared to deal with being a lamb among wolves, and is unwilling to let the situation crush her spirit, or let anyone change who she is. Though she is also willing to not outright insult everyone with her accustomed culture, and even seems willing to give Caesar a chance, if he ever decides to stop being a colossal douche.
Speaking of Caesar, there’s a lot more to him than what appears on the surface. It is true that he is the second son, but he is the only son of the queen, while his older brother is the son of a concubine. If he wants the throne, he has the right to challenge for it, but he currently has no interest. Caesar is well aware of the advantages those around him would gain if he were to take the throne, and he has no interest in furthering someone else’s goals. On top of that, we know that as a child, he was flat out told not to bother trying to become stronger, and he was jealous that the Ajin could do with such ease what he struggled and trained to do. While he certainly has no problem flaunting his power now, as a child he was confused as to what gave him the right to wield such power, when those so easily stronger than he were denied any real rights of their own. That feeling seems to have been thrown out the window, however. Whether he grew out of it, or whether his upbringing drove it out of him, I’m not sure. He’s surprisingly complicated, and it’s going to take a bit longer to really pin him down, I think. I can’t really say that I think he pities the Ajin’s lot in life, because that doesn’t seem to be the case; in fact, he hates them. But I do think he has feelings of inadequacy and possibly an inferiority complex about their difference in abilities. We also know that his father, King Guran, fears them; perhaps he feels that with their superior power, they will one day rise up against him. I wouldn’t be surprised. I’m quite curious as to how the Ajin became the slaves and canon fodder for the humans, and why they don’t rise up. They’re obviously oppressed and hated, but when you look at someone like Loki, it’s hard to imagine why they put up with it. Loki is fiercely loyal to Nakaba, but while they do have a master/servant relationship, they are also close friends. In fact, Loki is really her only friend and ally, now that she’s in the lair of the enemy, and there are hints that he may have been her only friend even back in Senan. The understand and have full faith in one another, and I can imagine Caesar becoming extremely jealous of their relationship. A love triangle is sure to come, especially with Caesar’s final “Oh, maybe this girl is not a total write off” moment.
A quick note about the art, if you’re still with me. It’s not spectacular, but it’s solid, especially as the title is Rei Toma’s first ongoing series (though she has illustrated novels and done character design for video games previously). Her panel structure is simple, but at least it’s easy to read. She won’t win any layout awards, but the art itself seems confident. There are a few flat expressions here or there, and King Guran, even for a cold man, is exceptionally flat. The main characters – Loki, Nakaba, and Caesar – are animated and emotional, and distinctively drawn. Backgrounds and such are sparse, which is unfortunate given the fantasy setting, where you’d want to really sink into this new world. Hopefully that will change in future volumes.
Review copy provided by Viz Media.