Paros no Ken (The Sword of Paros) is a three volume fantasy series written by Kurimoto Kaoru (Guin Saga's author) and drawn by Igarashi Yumiko (Candy Candy's artist). It ran from 1986-1987 in Monthly Asuka. It is, as far as I know, the earliest example of a yuri romance that doesn't end with either half of its couple being killed off, committing suicide, or marrying a man. Incredible progressiveness for its time aside, it holds up today as a ripping good yarn.
Paros no Ken begins and ends described by an unnamed wandering minstrel to us as a legend based on events from long ago.
The kingdom of Paros was once in a dark period, in which it was threatened by a militant neighboring kingdom called Kauros.
Although Kauros could have gained control of Paros by invading, its leaders tried to save themselves the trouble by uniting the two kingdoms through marriage. Paros's King Aldius doesn't want his kingdom to lose its independence to Kauros by any means and tries to politely decline them. But he's running out of excuses, so he pressures his only heir, Erminia, to pick a Parosian man to wed. Unfortunately for him, Erminia isn't interested in men and makes no secret of it.
Erminia spends most of her free time riding horses with her best friend since childhood Yurias. One day Erminia saves one of the castle's laundry maids, Fiona, from being run over by a runaway horse. Neither can stop thinking about the other after that- Erminia because Fiona's her type, and Fiona because Erminia reminds her of the "prince" she met once as a child who she has always wanted to meet again. Of course, the person from Fiona's childhood is Erminia. I've mentioned before that I find the "I have been in love with you since we were kids, even though I haven't seen you at all since then!" trope stupid, but I actually don't mind it here. Fiona has had such a godawful life that it sadly makes sense that she would cling like a drowning person to a memory like that.
But anyway, Erminia's sex doesn't make any difference to Fiona, and Fiona and Erminia spend more and more time together. Erminia becomes further smitten because Fiona is not only kind, she's the only person Erminia knows who isn't like "You're a woman, so you should do this and that and this! And be interested in these things!" Yurias, who is in love with Erminia, instantly pegs where things are heading between Erminia and Fiona. Some knights from Kauros attack Erminia when she is with Fiona. After Erminia and Yurias fend them off, Erminia notes that the Kaurian knights had several chances to kill her, but didn't. They were just testing her, for some reason.
Erminia's father finally gives her an ultimatum to chose a groom within ten days' time, and has her confined to her room until she chooses. This volume ends on a cliffhanger.
Erminia, who has justifiably been compared a lot to Rose of Versailles' Oscar, is a charismatic, ass-kicking lead- and, of course, groundbreaking for avoiding certain negative tropes and being happily outspoken about who she likes. In a high fantasy setting, but still. Erminia's out-ness is a big deal within the world she lives in because Paros no Ken's world is brimming with heterosexism, not to mention sexism. It can be incredibly, wonderfully refreshing to read something like Malinda Lo's Ash (one of my favorite novels), in which the characters live in a world where homophobia is nil and being openly interested in other women/other men need not come with any potentially negative consequences (because, you know, that's how things should be and will be someday)- but stories in which the characters work through (or have worked through) the less pretty aspects of coming out are, in a way, more... Well, let me put it this way. As a high schooler in the "What do these feelings mean!?" phase, I loved how utterly not a big deal the romances between Strawberry Panic!'s characters were. But for its much lower amount of out-and-out yuri, I found Maria-sama ga Miteru more comforting because the one canon lesbian among its leads, Sei, dealt with the less pretty aspects of coming out and ultimately came out happy even though she didn't get the girl she liked when she was questioning.
The point of that rambling tangent is that, even though Paros no Ken takes place in a high fantasy setting, it's written in such a way that Erminia's development parallels a lot of folks' real life experiences with coming out/being out as lgbtq, for better and worse, such as when Erminia tells Fiona (after mentioning that Yurias called her selfish for her time spent romancing Fiona), "If I express anything of a free will at the castle, I am accused of being selfish. One day, I simply realized that I needed to be true to myself, even if it caused others to curse my existence. I have just one chance... One chance to live a life that belongs to none but me."
One thing that does date this series is the ambiguity between trans male and lesbian identity in it. To quote what I wrote about that ambiguity in my essay on lesbian identity in yuri:
In some early works like Ikeda Riyoko’s Claudine…! and Kurimoto Kaoru and Igarashi Yumiko’s Paros no Ken, there is some ambiguity between lesbian identity and transgender identity. Oniisama E’s Rei is an example of a character whose description of being like a man—having the aura of a man, as Nanako [Oniisama's E's protagonist] describes her—was pretty obviously the closest thing that you were going to see to the word “butch” (or the Japanese equivalent) in a 70’s shoujo manga. That may have been the case with Claudine (the lead in Claudine…!) and Erminia (the lead in Paros no Ken) as well. Sailor Moon’s Haruka is described by creator Takeuchi Naoko, as having the “heart of a guy,” although when Takeuchi Naoko was asked if Haruka had been a man in her past life, she said no, and affirmed that she intended to create a relationship between two girls. Just as the concept of akogare in Japan has a Western historical parallel in the idea of “smashings” between Victorian schoolgirls, the association between lesbian and transgender identity in older examples of Yuri has a parallel in the numerous historical examples of lesbians who passed themselves as men or adopted a masculine identity in order to enjoy the freedoms and opportunities men enjoyed, like La Maupin. Some characters are clearly butch, but for some, like Claudine, one can’t be certain whether they are asserting themselves as transsexuals or as lesbians who want the privileges exclusive to men. Yuri fans have fondly dubbed cool, butchy yuri characters “Girl Princes,” partly because their earliest ancestor (who actually isn’t a Yuri character) is Ribon no Kishi’s Sapphire, who is literally a girl prince.
In short, like Claudine, you can read Erminia as a butchy lesbian or a straight trans man (or genderqueer, since the text leaves room for that), whatever suits you. That ambiguity is actually a plot point in this series, but it doesn't come into play majorly until later on.
I should also, finally, mention that Erminia and Fiona are sweet as a couple, but Fiona is more passive and damsel-in-distressy than I'd like for the first two volumes of this series. Thankfully, she moves away from that in volume three and (SPOILER!) saves Erminia from the biggest threat she faces- and Erminia likes Fiona's heightened competence, even if the risk Fiona takes because of it scares the shit out of her. But I'm getting ahead of myself. More romantic intrigue and political skulduggery coming in volume 2~
Art: A LOT of beautiful detail. A