A Thousand Leagues of Wind, The Sky at Dawn
Part X (Chapter 38)
oushi, what's all that blood!"
Rangyoku's voice cried out as soon as Youko took off her overcoat. Youko shook her head. "It's not mine. I came across an injured boy in Takuhou."
"The boy was run over by a carriage. The whole thing gave me a bad feeling."
With the gate closing fast approaching, she had left Takuhou in a hurry, rode Hankyo till they were near Hokui and made it by the skin of her teeth.
"The carriage was already some ways off when I got there, but the only conclusion I can come to is that it was responsible. Yet it didn't stop and nobody chased after it."
"Well, that's Shoukou for you."
"Who?" said Youko, leaning toward her.
Rangyoku returned to her chair in the main room and continued the sewing that she had interrupted. "The governor of Shisui. If it was a real luxurious carriage, then it was probably him. Nobody but the governor ever rides in a carriage like that."
"He is that well known?"
"Very much so. A beast like him doesn't associate with little people like us." Rangyoku frowned. "There are people in Hokui who run away from Shisui. You don't hear so much about it recently. They say that prefectural guards at the border inspect everybody who tries to leave. Lots of bad rumors come out of that place."
"We're really lucky, this being the Taiho's domain, and all. I've heard that the Marquis of Wa is a really dreadful person. A long time ago, he used to be the duke here."
"That's what Enho says, too."
Rangyoku nodded. "People say it was really awful back then. Thankfully, he got sent to Wa Province. It must be tough on the people of Wa. There's no guarantee that our peaceful lifestyle will go on forever. We live now in the Duchy of Yellow, but I don't know if that's going to last, either. Even if we stay in the Duchy of Yellow, when I turn twenty I'll move to a homestead, and it could be in Wa."
"Yeah, I guess so."
"It'd be better if I could find a good person in the next two years." Rangyoku laughed. Youko tilted her head quizzically. "Find a nice guy in Hokui and get married at the same time I get my partition. If I'm registered under his name, I could transfer my partition to his village. If there's available land, that is."
Youko blinked several times. "That's your reason for getting married?"
"Where you get your partition is really important. Do you know what an intercessor is?"
Youko shook her head. "No."
"They introduce you to a marriage partner, set the conditions and arrange for the meeting. For a fee, they register you on the census and transfer the land. And after that, you split up. That's what an intercessor does."
"You think so?"
"In Yamato, marriage is not so simple. Well, recently, people have become very adept at getting divorces, but it's not exactly an admirable thing to do. Splitting up so simply is pretty surprising."
Rangyoku giggled. "Yamato must really be a great place. In my case, when I find the right person, we're going to stay together and have children and raise a family. But if my partition ends up in Wa, that's what I'll do. Did you know that the tax rate in Shisui is seventy percent?"
Taxes typically came to ten percent of the harvest. Adding in special levies to support the military and the civil service, it shouldn't exceed twenty percent. That was established policy.
"Levies amount to twenty percent, and there's a ten percent poll tax. A twenty percent excise tax for building bridges and dikes. A contingency tax for defending against youma and funding the orphanages. It all adds up to seventy percent."
The law consisted of the Law of the Land and the Divine Decrees, also known as the Great Colonnade. The Divine Decrees were the provisions handed down by Heaven. Not even a king could violate them. Laws promulgated by the king were known as the Law of the Land. It was equally forbidden for province lords and governors to abrogate the Law of the Land. The tax rate was established according to the Law of the Land, and it was ten percent. Province lords and governors were allowed to impose another five percent on top of that. The current imperial tax rate had been reduced to eight percent, and no additional levies were allowed.
That's what Youko said. "Levies are not now allowed. Furthermore, I haven't heard of any additional taxes being imposed. To start with, what in the world are these contingency and excise taxes? Those services should be provided by the Imperial Army."
Rangyoku said with a nervous laugh, "That's why they say Shoukou is a tyrant. Really, I can't understand why the Empress looks the other way when there are people like him around." She cut the thread she was sewing with and stuck the needle in the pincushion. "Better get dinner ready. You need to change. If Keikei sees all that blood, it'll throw him for a loop."
Youko left the main hall and went straight to the study. She called out to Enho and entered the room. He was replacing a book on the bookshelf. When he saw her his eyes widened.
"Youko, where did that blood come from?"
"I helped somebody who was in an accident. That's not why I'm here. Did you know that the tax rate in Shisui is seventy percent?"
Enho sighed softly. "I see. You heard about that. That's why you went to Shisui."
"That's actually not why I went to Shisui, but is it true?"
"It's true. Settle down."
"I don't recall ever authorizing that!"
In response to this outburst, Enho took another breath and showed her to a chair. "Losing your temper won't help anybody. Look, Youko, the tax rate in Hokui is thirty percent."
Youko gaped at him. "But Hokui is in the Duchy of Yellow!"
"No matter how compassionate a duke we may have, it won't do much good if he can't keep an eye on things every minute of day."
Youko took a deep breath and dejectedly sat down in front of Enho.
"Don't let it get you down. No enlightened monarch can take over the reins of government all by herself. Without capable ministers to back her up, the rule of law will never take hold in the kingdom."
"Kei of late has not been blessed with enlightened monarchs. Have you heard the people of Hokui complaining? You haven't. Back when Gahou was in charge, the tax rate was fifty percent. Under the Duchy of Yellow, it's thirty percent. Everybody is very grateful for that."
Youko had nothing to say in reply.
"Of the seventy percent tax that Shoukou levies, the imperial tax comes to ten percent. Gahou skims off forty percent. The remaining twenty percent is left to Shoukou. Shoukou is a skilled bureaucrat with a knack for tax collection, so Gahou takes a special interest in him. At any rate, Shoukou seems to be just the kind of person capable of raising that forty percent for Gahou."
"But why?" Why were such things allowed to go on? Youko found herself on the verge of tears at her helpless, worthless state.
"In fact, in Wa Province reclamation projects are thriving. Building dikes here and there, bridges here and there. Gahou insists that he is not collecting taxes, but spending money that was already set aside. And if he is building dikes and bridges with that money, it's difficult for the kingdom to then criticize him. Nevertheless, the bridges in Wa tend to come falling down. Even when the rain doesn't fall. It's something of a joke. But if everybody says it's because the engineers are cutting corners, again, it's hard to directly criticize Gahou."
"So that's what it comes down to."
Chousai, who had the Privy Council under his thumb--well, having demoted him, she ought to refer to him as Taisai--but Seikyou and his ilk hated Gahou like snakes hate scorpions. All this venom notwithstanding, it had to be said that Gahou never left a flank open to attack. If Seikyou could do nothing, then short of an Imperial Rescript delivered by Youko herself, Gahou would stay one step ahead of the law. Many voices within the ministries clamored for such a Rescript, but many objected just as vehemently, saying that enacting Rescripts not founded on hard evidence could plunge the kingdom into chaos. Even those opposed were distressed by Gahou's actions, making clear how unsympathetic a character he was.
"But Gahou and Shoukou are not the only public servants lining their own pockets. The kingdom is replete with them. Arresting only Gahou and Shoukou will accomplish nothing. Another Gahou would soon appear."
Youko lifted her head. "But better than doing nothing."
"And on what basis?"
"Shoukou is a beast, but with Gahou giving him cover, getting a warrant would be difficult. If it were that simple, somebody would have already taken care of it."
"Today I saw Shoukou kill a child."
Enho looked at her in surprise. "Really? This was something Shoukou actually did?"
Youko explained the situation. Enho sighed. "I see, and that person was the one responsible. Do you think that it would be enough to arrest him on?"
"He'll no doubt claim that he wasn't the one in the carriage. And if not that, then you'll see a mountain of testimonials that it wasn't the carriage itself that killed the boy. Don't forget that Shoukou is a governor because he can wield that kind of power."
Youko bit her lip.
"It is not good to leave such a public servant to his own devices, but bend the law in order to exact retribution, and the law loses its meaning. That is a far worse sin. Let's not get impatient."
Youko bowed and left the study. She tightly shut the door to her own room.
"Hankyo, I hate to impose, but I'd like you to go to Kinpa Palace."
"Yes. We've got to do something. Tell Keiki that I'd like him to investigate."
"By your command."
With that, the room fell silent. Youko furrowed her brow. The image of the boy rose up in her mind. He had been so emaciated. Whether or not Shoukou had deliberately killed him, she couldn't say.
"It is all so sad."
And such a small child. If Shoukou had killed him, then it became her responsibility for keeping such a monster in office.
The boy's dying words echoed in her ears. He didn't want to die because Suzu would weep for him. His older sister? Or . . . Youko suddenly looked up. "Suzu?"
What a strange name. Hardly a common name around here. Perhaps . . . .
Because Youko was listed upon the Registry of Wizards and everything was automatically translated for her, her language skills were truly lame. Thinking back about it now, she couldn't recall what language the girl had spoken in. She couldn't even remember what she looked like. Only the pain and grief in her eyes. Why hadn't she noticed, why hadn't she taken the time to ask?
Where were you born?
Youko glanced down at her bloodstained clothing. I need to go back there, to Shisui. She shook her head. What would she say to her? Shoukou was stayed in office because of her. In Kei, there were still laws that discriminated against kaikyaku. She hadn't repealed them. If she met a kaikyaku, she would have nothing to say worth listening to.
"I really am worthless as a monarch."
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
10-2 The way I see it, there's two kinds of crying.
It's true, Suzu thought, gazing at the casket being lowered into the grave. She had never wept such heartbreaking tears. The lamentations tore at her chest until she was out of breath, until there was nothing left inside her but emptiness.
The sad little shrine stood alone in the cemetery outside the city of Takuhou. The barrel-like casket sat there throughout the night and now disappeared into the hole.
Stop, Suzu had begged the grave keeper. Don't bury him. It's too sad. She knew it was a meaningless request.
He reassured her with a pat on the back and all but tore the casket from her grasp and hauled it away. Again, she repeated the same vain request as a stone struck the top of the casket and the grave was filled in.
The round shape of the casket symbolized the egg from which people were born in this world. From the husk you were born, to the husk you shall return. The ranka containing the child was plucked from the riboku. The parents would tap on the ranka with a stone to create a crack, a good luck charm to ensure a quick birth. Following that custom, they used a round, egg-like casket made from fired-clay, and then, presaging the reincarnation of the dead, opened a fissure in its surface with a stone.
The hole was filled in, leaving behind a small mound of earth. Even after the grave keepers left, Suzu stood there dumbly.
I knew it all along.
She knew that Seishuu was going to die. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she had always known it was going to happen. The symptoms were too severe. He couldn't eat. He was wasting away. He was getting worse all over.
Could even the Royal Kei have saved him? The empress surely should have been able to. On the other hand, far from everything turning out okay, it was just as likely that neither the empress nor the royal surgeons could have done anything for him.
"But he didn't deserve to die like that."
Why'd he have to get killed in a hit and run? Even if he hadn't, he wouldn't have lived that much longer.
"I am an idiot." Suzu clutched at the earth. "I put all my faith in the Royal Kei. Why didn't I take him to a doctor in Goto!"
Taking him to a doctor might have proved pointless as well. That fear, coupled with the conviction that the Royal Kei would save him, had created these foolish expectations. Better to have taken him to a doctor in Goto, right after they got off the boat. If they only hadn't come here.
"Seishuu . . . I'm sorry." The sobs still filled the throat. Her tears had not dried. "I'm sorry."
A cloud passed across the sun. Suzu stared at her own shadow.
"Miss, the gates are closing."
She turned blankly toward the sound of the voice. She saw a figure of a smallish person. For a moment, she grasped at false hopes.
"You going to be here long? Your teeth are chattering."
"Leave me alone."
He looked three or four years older than Seishuu. About fourteen. A small-framed boy with black hair. The boy said, "In Kei, it's still not safe to be caught outside a city at night."
Suzu glared at him. "Leave me alone. Don't worry about me."
"You want to get eaten by a youma? You got some sort of death wish?"
"You wouldn't understand. Go on ahead."
The boy didn't answer. For a little while, standing behind her, she felt his eyes on her back. "Nobody understands how I feel at all!" she cried.
The boy answered quietly, "Crying out of self-pity does no respect to the dead."
Suzu's eye widened in surprise. People who cry because they feel so sorry for themselves. "Who are you?"
"I'm from Takuhou. Shall we return together?"
Suzu got to her feet. Once again she looked down at the small mound of earth. "Do you know who he was?"
"Everybody knows about it. You came from Sou?"
The boy held out his hand. Suzu took it. He had a warm, delicate palm. She said, "This child is a child of Kei. He fled the kingdom and went to Kou. Then he fled Kou and went to Sou. And now he was returning to Kei."
"I see," the boy said to himself. He looked back at the mound of earth. "That is sad."
"Yes," Suzu nodded. The tears spilled down her cheeks. Still weeping, the boy's hand in hers, they returned to the city.
"Are you from Takuhou?"
They arrived back at the city just as the gates closed. Inside the gates, Suzu averted her eyes from the right-hand side of the road and more tightly gripped the hand in hers. She didn't let go until they had crossed the main boulevard.
"Are you from Kei, then?"
"No. From Sai."
"That's a long voyage. Do you have a place to stay?"
Suzu nodded her head. "Thank you for talking to me."
"Sure," said the boy. He looked at her. "Cheer up. If you don't walk facing forward, you'll end up falling into a hole."
"Into a hole?"
"The hole of your own self-pity."
"Yeah," Suzu muttered to herself. That would be disrespectful to Seishuu. She could hear Seishuu still scolding her. "You're right about that. Thanks."
"What's your name?"
"Hey," said Suzu, looking into his face. "Do you know if that guy who ran over Seishuu has been arrested?"
Shh, Sekki said, signaling with his eyes. "Better you don't talk about such things so people can hear." He led her into a nearby alleyway. "That guy won't be arrested."
"You mean you know who it is?"
"Not an acquaintance, if that's what you mean. I wouldn't want to be known as an associate of that beast."
The vehemence with which he spoke surprised her. "Who is it?"
"Everybody in the city knows: The governor killed the boy traveler."
The governor, Shoukou. Remember that name. The most dangerous man in Shisui Prefecture."
"He killed Seishuu?"
"The boy fell down in front of Shoukou carriage. The carriage stopped. And then--"
"And then--he would do something like that?"
"Shoukou is completely capable of it."
"That's awful." Suzu slumped against the wall and slid to the ground. "Seishuu couldn't even walk straight." She hugged her knees. "I should have carried him on my back." Why had she been so unwilling to? He hardly weighed anything at all. She could have done it.
"You shouldn't blame yourself, Suzu."
Suzu shook her head. There was no way she couldn't but blame herself.
"And it does no good to blame Shoukou."
"Why not!" A fierce expression rose to Suzu's face.
"To begrudge Shoukou is as good as getting murdered by him all over again." He turned and added almost as an aside, "I guess no one taught you that until now."
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
10-3 From the eastern quarter of Ryuu, Shoukei and Rakushun crossed Mt. Koushuu and entered En. As soon as they had crossed the border, Shoukei gaped at the splendidly maintained roads.
They had traveled parallel to the ridgeline of the Koushuu mountains, making their way along the valleys, then climbed the switchbacks up the face of the mountains, stayed a night there, climbed further to the summit of a small peak. At the summit, a city hugged the slopes. A high barrier wall divided the very center of the long, narrow city. In the wall was a huge gate. This side of the gate was Ryuu. On the other was En.
The differences in the appearance of the streets and the cities themselves facing the barrier wall were highly curious. Upon reaching the gates, the worn, pothole-filled roads turned into trim, even, stone-paved avenues. The typical panorama of small shops lining the rutted streets along the main boulevard, people, carriages and carts all tangled up together. Crossing into En on the other side of the gate, the shops stood smartly in tiers and waves of people flowed down the sidewalks between the shops and the right-of-way alongside the road.
The building lining the streets themselves were tall. Many were built from stone, four or five stories, windows glazed with glass. Ryuu also had tall building with glass windows, but Ryuu left you with a gloomy, decrepit impression. Perhaps because the buildings in Ryuu were so much older. Perhaps because of the frozen water puddling on the worn stone roadways. Perhaps because the glass windows were clouded and cracked. In any case, it looked as if Ryuu had tried mightily to mimic En, but had tired of the effort and quit halfway through.
I'd heard En was wealthy, but . . . .
The wealthiest of the northern kingdoms. Yet the sight of this city, more than anything she had imagined, left her speechless.
"En is a cold country, so how can it be so different?"
When it came to the seasons, Hou and En were not that different. En was situated further south than Hou, but as it was located in the northeast corner of the continent, during the winter, it was swept by freezing seasonal winds. In fact, the sense she got as they walked along was that it got no warmer as they drew closer to En.
"Are there large mines here?"
Rakushun glanced over his shoulder and smiled. "No. Unlike Hou or Ryuu, En doesn't have much in the way of natural resources. Growing wheat and raising cattle, that's about it."
The cities were big and business flourished, explained Rakushun, but the larger portion of the kingdom's wealth came from the annual harvest.
"But a difference this big!"
"That has to do with the difference in the qualities of the kings."
"The kings? That accounts for this?"
"En has not faltered in five hundred years. That accounts for the biggest difference."
"When the throne is occupied, natural disasters occur less frequently. With fewer wars and natural disasters, the population grows. The people work hard and cultivate land and agricultural stocks grow as well. By maintaining the fields well, harvests flourish. The kingdom carefully controls surpluses of grain to ensure against overproduction and price deflation. The kingdom manages the land, and stockpiles against a rainy day, and thus keeps every nook and corner in good condition."
"For example," Rakushun continued, "dig drainage canals to prepare for the rainy season. Build bridges over the canals, and secure them with stone foundation so they don't collapse. Cover the canals where they cut through roads. By preparing and following a well thought-out plan, the cities can be protected. Over ten or twenty years, carry these programs throughout the kingdom. With a kingdom being guided over a long period of time by a single policy, it will come to be adopted in the kingdom's furthest precincts."
Shoukei's father had sat on the throne for thirty years. The previous king had ruled for not half a century. In contrast to that, this was the result of a single king governing for half a millennium.
"The kingdoms of short-lived kings are quite unfortunate. You finally create a business and build it into something big, and it's swept away by a flood and you have to start all over again."
"The Royal Hou was infamous for his cruelty. Maybe not to you, but such a king was not a blessing to his subjects."
Shoukei glanced briefly at Rakushun's profile. "Probably not."
"The king is there to help the people. Oppressive kings do not stay in their positions for long. But what is difficult now will become worse when a king falls. And when the Saiho dies as well, it will take five to ten years for the king to be chosen. Twenty years might not be unusual. When natural disasters have gone on for two decades, the land is all the more devastated. Even finding enough food to eat becomes problematic."
Shoukei said, "No matter the king, he gives his all for the people. But it's not necessarily true that these efforts will quickly come to fruition and yield results. When a kingdom is in chaos, so are men's hearts. For the time being, judgements must be severe and the people brought back to the straight and narrow. Don't you think that is necessary?"
Her father had said so often. Whenever he promulgated a new law, there were ministers who complained it was too strict. He repeatedly insisted that in order to reorganize a kingdom, such steps were required.
"But to such an extent? There are limits to everything. True, overthrowing a king is perhaps going too far."
"The Royal Hou did not fall because he lost the Divine Mandate, but because traitors assassinated him."
Rakushun nodded. "The province lord of Kei rose up and struck down the king. Though regicide is a grave crime, it is not always proscribed. In some cases, it might be preferable."
Shoukei bowed her head. It was beginning to dawn on her why her father had been so hated, why a traitor like Gekkei remained so popular. The people believed that Chuutatsu was only making things worse. Gekkei acted before ruin was visited upon them, and so they revered him. The people made their choices clear. And thus their reproach had turned on Shoukei as well, who had never once remonstrated with the king.
"Let's go," Rakushun said.
Shoukei walked from the rather sad Ryuu side of the city to the bright and thriving En side of the city. The name of both cities was Hokuro.
As expected, when entering En, passports were expected. According to custom, passports were always inspected when crossing an international border, in order to check the movement of criminals and inspect any belongings in your possession. You were not necessarily turned away if you didn't have a passport, but you did have to be questioned by an immigration official.
Having been told about this beforehand, Shoukei nervously told the border guard that she did not have a passport. She was shown to a building next to the gate, but another guard stopped then. "No need to bother," he said. "As long as you're with him, you can be on your way."
The guard politely handed Rakushun's passport back to him. Rakushun bowed and passed through the gate. Shoukei asked him again, "So exactly who are you?"
"Like I said, a student."
"Whenever I think about it, you're an awfully suspicious guy."
"I've got my reasons. Just as you have yours."
"It's almost as if your plan all along was to investigate Ryuu."
"That was part of it. I wanted to see what other kingdoms were like. When I was living in Kou, I heard a lot about En, but actually going there was a whole lot different. School is in recess from the New Year till spring. So I wanted to spend the time to take a look at the other kingdoms. As it turned out, there were people willing to make the necessary arrangements if I went to Ryuu. In exchange, I was to fill them in on the state of affairs in Ryuu."
Shoukei gave Rakushun a sideways glance. "You mean, like whether Ryuu is in decline."
"Yeah," Rakushun nodded. "This is a matter of no small import. If Ryuu really is failing, then its borders will become more and more dangerous. Refugees will start flooding out of Ryuu. A kingdom has got to prepare for that kind of eventuality. A heads-up beforehand can make all the difference."
"So, important people in En sent you to investigate."
"That's pretty much it. En is a wealthy kingdom, truly blessed. The land and the people are at peace. But that doesn't mean it is free from problems." Rakushun looked over his shoulder and pointed back at the gate. "The Ryuu side of the city is rather forlorn. No two ways about it, it's better to stay at an inn in En. Despite this, come nightfall and you have many people entering Ryuu. Why would that be?"
Shoukei craned her neck, looking backwards. "It is strange, now that you mention it. So many people leaving like that. There's no way they could make it to the next city now."
"It's because there's no low-rent district in En."
"The people of En are well off. When they stay in an inn, they don't have to share lodgings with people they don't know. In the first place, such establishments aren't that common. And the clientele tend to be the kind who skip out on the rent, so innkeepers have no fondness for them. However, not all the citizens of En are rich. There are itinerants, refugees, people just scraping by. Lodgings for these people are hard to come by in En. True of traveling. In En, it's pretty much by carriage or nothing."
Carriages pulled by one or two teams of horses frequented the highways, speeding travelers from one city to the next. In the countryside, farmers with time on their hands would make their horse carts and wagons available for transportation. Otherwise, driving a carriage or stagecoach was an occupational specialty.
"Because En is a wealthy kingdom, there is no need for farmers to hire themselves out during the off-season. Usually, only the rich ride in carriages, but in En, anybody can. Moreover, the rates are reasonable, though not as cheap as a horse cart. People have enough in their pockets that they tend not to quibble. Still, lacking the horse carts that poor people can afford, if the poor have got to travel during the winter, it's on foot."
Shouko again glanced back at the gate. The travelers heading in the Ryuu were indeed a worn-out, unpretentious, motley-looking bunch. At a glance, it was obvious from the tide of people flowing through the customs houses on either side of the gate that they were mostly refugees and itinerants without passports.
"People flock to En because it is wealthy. But the distinctions between the citizens of En and the people flooding in, between rich and poor, can't be erased. Those who can't find lodging often camp out in the streets and freeze to death. Then you've got desperate men who, fearing that fate, become thieves and robbers. Refugees are En's biggest problem. In some of En's larger cities, the number of refugees and itinerants are becoming significant. In these past ten years, dealing with them has turned into a real headache."
"That's why you're concerned about the state of things in Ryuu."
"That would be it."
"So, tell me, who did endorse your passport?"
Rakushun only waved his tail in response.
"What, you can't show me?"
Without answering, Rakushun took the passport from his pocket and held it out to her. On the back was the fresh seal of the Chousai of En, one In Hakutaku.
"The Chousai . . . . "
Rakushun fluttered his whiskers. "Don't take that to mean I've ever talked to the man. The person who let me borrow the suugu got the endorsement from the Chousai for me."
The Chousai was the head of the Rikkan, the chief minister. Anybody who could make such a request from the Chousai would have to be close to the center of power.
Rakushun scratched at the bottom of his ear. "It's not that I'm an important person. But I do happen to know the Royal Kei."
"The Royal Kei?"
As soon as the words came out of her mouth, Shoukei felt a pain in her chest. "How could someone like you--?"
Rakushun said, answering the rest of the question. "How could a hanjuu like me know her?"
Shoukei hurriedly apologized, "No, I'm sorry."
"No need to apologize. I am nothing more than the hanjuu you see. But I don't see anything wrong with that. Though you do make it sound as if there is."
"I didn't mean that."
"The Royal Kei is an acquaintance of mine. A friend. I like to think that she counts me as a friend, as well. From the outside looking in, it might strike some as very strange. I resisted it at first, too. I mean, she being an empress, and all. I told her once that I couldn't very well go around calling her my friend, and she practically chewed my head off."
"The Royal Kei did?"
"Yeah. She said that there was no more distance between us than that of two people standing next to each other." Rakushun smiled. "I found her dying at the side of the road. So I picked her up and took her to En."
Shoukei's mouth dropped open. "Dying at the side of the road? The Royal Kei?"
"She's a kaikyaku. A taika. She was swept onto the shores of Kou. At the time, the standing edict in Kou was to execute all kaikyaku. They pursued her until she collapsed from exhaustion."
Shoukei pressed her hand to her chest. She had believed that this girl who had become empress had been blessed with that great fortune without so much as lifting a finger.
"When I first took the Royal Kei to Kankyuu, I thought I'd get myself a nice little job as a reward. The longer I was with her, the pettier such goals became. When asked what I wished as a reward, I planned to say: admission to secondary school. But when the moment actually came, I blurted out: university. I'd mostly studied at home, so I was really bluffing when I said I wanted to go to college."
Shoukei looked at Rakushun, a jumble of feelings going through her. "I don't think anybody's going to give you a reward for taking me to En."
"That had nothing to do with it. You looked pretty miserable sitting there in that jail cell."
"Yours was the face of somebody who had taken about all she could take." He narrowed his eyes. "It reminded me of the Royal Kei when I first met her."
"So you picked me up and took me to En."
Rakushun laughed. "Like I told you, these chance encounters seem to be my destiny."
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
Part XI (Chapter 41)
n is situated to the southeast of Ryuu, but the winters don't differ that much. Just as in Ryuu, it was a hardship to travel except by horse-drawn wagon. Though in En, people used carriages. The team of horses pulled a solidly-built coach and took them south on well-groomed roads.
Poorer travelers walked along the shoulders of the road. The blowing wind was cold, and you could freeze even while keeping on the move. They clutched onjaku to their chests, heads ducked into the wind, and carried over their shoulders sacks filled with a little charcoal and firewood. Here and there along the highway, the firewood would feed bonfires where they could warm themselves. They cast sideways glances at the stagecoach as it rushed past.
"It must be rough to have to travel on foot," Shoukei said to Rakushun, sitting across from her.
The coach seated two facing bench seats that each could sit three people. Shoukei and Rakushun were the only passengers.
"Shoukei, do you still want to go to Tai?"
Shoukei let out a breath. "I really wanted to go to Kei."
"I wanted to go to Kei and work for a minister, get close to the Royal Kei. I'd ingratiate myself with her. And when the opening presented itself, usurp the throne. Something like that. I'm pretty sure half of it was in my imagination. But half of it was serious. You mad at me?"
"No. But if you really were serious, there's no way I could look at you again."
"You're right." Shoukei laughed. "I needed to get registered on the census. I heard that if you went to Tai and caught a boat to Kei, you could get land and get registered in Kei."
Rakushun gave her a surprised look. "I hadn't heard of that."
"The original goal was to go to Tai with the kitsuryou. But for the time being, it's just as well going to Kei and looking for some land there."
Shoukei looked down at her hands, folded in her lap. "In fact, being the princess royal was a big deal to me. I didn't want to give up living in the palace and my luxurious lifestyle. It was really embarrassing working in the fields and wearing commonplace clothes. When I heard that the Royal Kei was the same age as me, I envied her so much. I couldn't forgive her for having all that I had lost."
"To tell the truth, it's still hard for me to stay in cheap hotels. It's mortifying to have to wear wool. But that's the penance I've got to pay." She clenched her hands, turning the tips of her entwined fingers white. "All I did was play around at the palace. I didn't do anything else. I didn't know people hated my father so much that they wanted to murder him. I didn't want to know. And now I'm paying for it. That's why Gekkei--he's the marquis of Kei Province--erased me from the Registry of Wizards. I get it now."
"If I hadn't been the princess royal, I would just be another child at the orphanage. I'd still be in my minority, without the wits to become a government official. That's why I got sent to the orphanage. I didn't have a clue. I just didn't get it."
"Better you get it now than never."
"Yeah," Shoukei laughed. "The Royal Kei, what kind of person is she?"
"She's about the same age as you."
"But not an idiot like me."
"Oh, she would call herself an idiot. And then she would say: But they made me empress, anyway!"
Shoukei laughed again. "She sounds like me."
"Perhaps. But you are more, well, feminine. The Empress is kind of rough about the edges."
Shoukei giggled and looked out the window at the passing scenery. "I'd like to go to Kei." She wanted to meet this empress. And if not meet her, she wanted to see what kind of a kingdom she was going to create.
"Returnee groups are forming all over En and heading to Kei."
"You mean, since the Royal Kei was enthroned, people have been going back."
"Quite a number of people. They don't really know what kind of monarch she'll turn out to be, but in any case, with the Royal En lending a hand in her ascension, the people of Kei are pretty sure she'll turn out to be a good empress."
"So that's the rumor. But it's hardly carved in stone that she'll be an enlightened monarch."
"True, but home is better than staying in En. They've got land there, and while it might not be great, they can plant their own two feet on their own ground and start a life." Rakushun flashed a wry smile. "There was nothing wrong with getting out of Kei while the getting was good, but when it comes right down to it, life is rough for a refugee in En. It is better than staying behind in a kingdom going to the dogs. And En does its best to take care of people. Seeing how rich En is has got to hurt, though. Still, the only way to become a citizen of En is to buy land or become a public servant, and neither one of those is easy. Otherwise, if you wanted to settle down in En, you'd have to get hired by a wealthy land owner and work as an itinerant farmer, or get a job in a shop. So people long for their home country."
"I've been very fortunate. I was lucky enough to get into the university. The people of Kei are pretty fortunate, too, compared to the average refugee elsewhere."
"The Royal Kei and Royal En have a good relationship. The Royal Kei has told the Royal En to convey her best regards to her subjects and the Royal En has acknowledged her wishes. That alone is plenty to be thankful for. He has done much to help resettle the people from Kei back in their home kingdom. It's coming out of the national budgets of both En and Kei, a compromise worked out between the En and Kei. It doesn't make life easier for people from the other kingdoms, though."
"The Royal Kei has a lot of things going for her. She's got a strong En watching her back, there to encourage her."
Shoukei wondered what kind of geography Kei had, it being so much further south than Hou. She said, "Do you think the returnees would mind someone who wasn't from Kei coming along with them?"
"I don't think so. They've got no way to check whether you've got a valid passport or not. A lot of people's homes were destroyed and they fled without their papers. Even so, if you want to go to Kei, I'll take you as far as the border."
"Tama should be waiting at the next town. The suugu, I mean. That's his name. With Tama, I can fly you to the Koushuu Mountains and be back to Kankyuu in two days."
Shoukei looked out toward the southeast. "You don't have any concerns about my going to Kei?"
"Not at all. Check it out. Go see what it's like."
"Once you've seen what you need to see, how about you come back to Kankyuu and fill me in on how things are going there?"
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
11-2 Shoukou. He killed Seishuu. Huddled in her room in the inn, those three words alone occupied her mind. He killed Seishuu.
"I won't forgive. I won't forget."
Suzu repeated these words over and over to herself. A knock came at the door. It was one of the innkeeper's servants.
"Miss, the gates have opened. Will you be staying on?"
Suzu got out her coin purse. "A little while longer. Here, I'll pay in advance."
It was enough to cover her expenses for five more days. After that, it would take another five days to get to Gyouten.
"Well, okay then," said the servant. He quickly cleaned up the room and left. Suzu watched him go. She stared at the ceiling. "Shoukou. I won't forgive you."
After that, Suzu wandered about the city pretending to be taking a stroll and seeing the sights. She'd randomly greet passers-by and ask them about Shoukou. No one had much to say. It wasn't a subject people felt free to talk about.
She thought at first about bringing charges against him, but after walking around the city for five days, she realized that would be impossible. Shoukou was a governor with a great deal of power. He controlled Shisui Prefecture. The taxes far exceeded the rate set by the kingdom, and the balance disappeared into his pockets. The tax collectors were brutal. The law was a plaything used to punish people on a whim.
As egregious as his actions were, Shoukou hadn't answered for them and wouldn't answer for them. That's what everybody said. He distributed his ill-gotten gains throughout the bureaucracy and bought his own protection.
Her next thought had been to travel to Gyouten and directly appeal to the Royal Kei. It wouldn't be easy arranging an audience with the empress, but she did have her passport with the endorsement of the Royal Sai.
After five days in the city, she gave up on that, too. What she'd learned of Shoukou's brazen behavior was even worse. The city spilled over with privately resentful voices, but such was the fierceness of Shoukou's grip that none dare voice these feelings aloud.
"Seventy percent or a life," was the expression she heard.
The tax was seventy percent of the harvest. If this payment was short in the slightest, you paid with a life. Turn yourself in to be killed, or present the head of one of your family.
Shoukou went hunting in the hamlets, they said. When he was in one of his moods, he'd go to a farming village in the outlying districts and kidnap girls. A few days later he'd toss them out like a bundle of old rags.
At times, merchants came from the borders of Kou and ships arrived from Tai carrying human cargo. He deceived itinerants and refugees from the faltering kingdoms into coming to Shisui to replace those that had died beneath his lash. Wagons and ships traveled to the kingdoms bearing food and provisions and distributed it to families who had lost their homes and land. Those receiving the goods believed that the governor dispatching the wagons and ships to be a compassionate man. In the place of the provisions, people were carried on the return trip. Travelers who came, lured by the promise of land and citizenship, would curse their terrible folly only afterwards.
Why, Suzu asked herself with almost unbridled fury. Why would the Royal Kei keep such a beast as a public servant?
Rumors abounded on the streets. The reason Shoukou could persecute the people so, the reason he was never called to account, was because he had somebody covering for him. Probably somebody in Gyouten. Somebody in Kinpa Palace. Somebody at the top.
The late empress Yo-o had been in on it, so the rumors went.
The late empress had no interest in governing the kingdom, that was why. The ministers and government officials did whatever they wanted and nobody gave a damn. Kiss a little ass, throw a little jewelry and silk around, and they'd look the other way.
Because she was a woman, the people of Takuhou said. Kei had bad luck with empresses. They never governed in peace.
Suzu laughed to herself. An empress from Yamato, the one person in the world who would understand her. A monarch filled with gentleness and compassion.
What a joke.
The Royal Kei had been her best and last hope, the one thing that kept her going. I want to meet her, Suzu had told herself over and over again. What an idiot she'd been.
"I won't forgive them. Shoukou or the Royal Kei."
Suzu left Takuhou and headed for Gyouten. As expected, it took her five days. Using her bank book, she withdrew the balance of the funds. It'd raise eyebrows when the Royal Sai found out, but at this point Suzu didn't care.
The first thing she went looking for was a licensed arms merchant.
You couldn't defeat a youma with an ordinary sword. You'd end up breaking the sword and not hurting the youma. For youma hunting, you had to have weapons upon which a special spell had been cast. Because they were only made by the Minister of Winter, they were called touki, or winter weapons. On the door to the shop was the official seal authorizing them to make armaments.
Licensed arms merchants were also the only dealers in the chains and ropes used to capture and train youma and other you-beasts. Suzu recalled traveling often to an arms merchant at the base of Mt. Ha in the southwest kingdom of Sai to buy military-grade tack for the groom who took care of Riyou's flying tiger, Setsuko.
And quite different from an ordinary dealer, these arms merchants carried a class of weapons not widely known to the public--weapons that could kill a wizard. A governor was a class of baron, and thus a full-fledged wizard. You had to have a particular kind of sword to wound him.
Suzu browsed around the shop and selected a dagger. She didn't know how to use one, but she knew she'd need it. Arms merchants actually rarely sold "winter weapons" to customers. This was one time when the endorsement of the Royal Sai on her passport came in handy.
She next went to an establishment that specialized in pegasi and flying beasts. She didn't need a horse or ox. What she needed was a mount much faster than a horse, a pegasus that could leap over any fence or barrier.
Flying youma were captured by wild game hunters in the Yellow Sea, where youma abounded in great numbers. Game hunters were called "corpse hunters" because they spent as much time tracking down the bodies of fellow trackers killed by youma as they did the youma themselves. The job of a corpse hunter was to capture youma, break them and deliver them to a wrangler. Youma wranglers worked hand-in-hand with death. So the animals didn't come cheap. Capture a top of the line youma like a suugu, break and train it, and you would be set for life.
Suzu entered the shop. A middle-aged man in the shop was turning through the pages of a ledger. He said, "Welcome."
He only raised his eyes when he spoke. A scar ran from the top of his head to his right cheek. His right eye was caved in.
"I'm looking for a pegasus."
"How much?" Are you willing to spend? he meant.
Suzu placed the bank notes on the table. "Whatever I can get for this."
"You want one that flies or one that's fast?"
"One that flies. And one that heeds commands well."
"You ever been on a bird youma?"
Riding a bird youma was no simple task. "No. I'd prefer a horse."
"In that case, a sansui is the best I can do for you."
"What kind of beast is a sansui?"
"A horse with a blue coat. It doesn't really have what it takes to fly at altitude, but it's got strong legs. Handy for leaping over the occasional river. Not exactly fleet-footed. Three times as fast as your regular horse, but gets winded quick. If that's okay with you, I've got a real gentle one."
Suzu nodded. "Sounds fine."
"Where you staying?" the man asked.
Flying youma were not kept in the city. Suzu gave him her name and the inn she was staying at.
"I'll bring it to you. The whole thing takes seven days. I could get it to you quicker, but I'd have to run it, and it being a sansui, then you'd have to rest it a day. After that, it needs time changing owners."
"Seven days suits me fine."
"Half down, half on delivery."
Suzu nodded. "It's a deal. I'll be waiting."
And so she waited at the inn, portioning out the remainder of her funds to leave herself enough to eat. This was the Gyouten she had so longed for, the city that blanketed the terraced slopes of Mt. Ryou-un. She wasn't impressed. It didn't mean anything without Seishuu there with her.
Seishuu, welcome to Gyouten.
High up at the top of Mt. Ryou-un was the Imperial Palace. In the palace lived the Royal Kei, the damned fool of a monarch who let a man like Shoukou be.
Suzu grasped the dagger inside her blouse. She'd gut Shoukou with it and head back to Gyouten ahead of the news. Using the Royal Sai's endorsement on her passport, she'd arrange for an audience with the Royal Kei.
They'd squeal like stuck pigs. Shoukou, and at the end of the day, the Royal Kei--they'd picked the wrong child of Kei to kill.
As promised, the sansui was delivered seven days later. The stable boy handed Suzu the scent ball. Inside the scent ball was a burning incense stick. It had a little buckle to attach to a belt or sash. Inside the ball was the incense prepared by the youma dealer. The wrangler used this burning incense to tame the youma. When the youma was sold to another person, it'd be charmed by the smell of the incense and would not get alarmed. After that, the intensity of the incense was slowly reduced until the animal was acclimated to the scent of its owner.
But Suzu didn't have much interest in any of this and didn't bother to remember much of it. Once she'd made it back to Gyouten, the thing could drop dead for all she cared.
Suzu stayed on in Gyouten for three more days while she and the sansui got used to each other. Then she headed back to Shisui Prefecture and Takuhou.
Seishuu, soon I'll have your revenge. Shoukou and the Royal Kei, they will feel what you felt in spades.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
11-3 Youko finished her morning chores and sent Enho's charges off to school. The school here didn't have an age limit, so Rangyoku attended along with Keikei. The main subjects were reading, writing and arithmetic. Children could go to school starting from the age of seven (counting a child as one at birth and a year older on each New Year), or five (counting birthdays on date of birth).
Because there was no formal graduation, adults could attend as well, and often came with babes in arms.
It was a pretty laid-back atmosphere. The main thing stressed was that the talk be about something more constructive than mere gossip. But as a consequence, open attendance was allowed only during the time that the villagers returned from the hamlets to the town. The school itself was closed from spring until fall. Anybody wishing to attend otherwise had to get a recommendation from the superintendent (who was also the principal).
Youko lingered behind in the now vacant orphanage and fretted about the girl named Suzu. What should she do? Go to Takuhou to look for her? She'd sent Hankyo off to Gyouten and he still hadn't returned. That was another reason for her hesitation. As she prepared lunch, she turned the whole thing over in her mind, wondering what to do.
"Hey, Youshi!" said Keikei.
Enho always left with Keikei and Rangyoku and returned together. Keikei ran ahead and got home first.
"You got a guest!"
"Yeah," Keikei nodded.
Youko glanced over her shoulder as Rangyoku walked in with Enho. Without a word, Rangyoku looked at Youko and grinned. "At the Eika Inn next to the dragon gate."
Rangyoku giggled and went into the kitchen. She pulled Youko over to a secluded area by the wall. "It's a guy."
Youko raised her eyebrows. The first image that popped into her head was the man she'd met at that shady tavern in Takuhou. "Was it perhaps a rather grim-looking man? A big man?"
"More of a slender physique."
"About fourteen or fifteen?" If it wasn't the big man, then maybe the boy who had intervened on her behalf.
Rangyoku gave Youko a teasing scowl. "Oh, stop it! I can't believe you'd forget a good-looking guy like that! He said to tell you that your servant had arrived. You'd know who it was."
Youko's eyes flew wide open.
"Wow, I mean, your servant! That's so incredible!"
Youko hastily waved her hands, batting away the implications. "Don't be ridiculous! It's nothing like that!"
"Ah, you're blushing. Must be a really neat guy. He was dressed so fine!"
"No, no, no. Oh, all right, what exactly did he have to say?"
"So you do know him. You two must be really close." Rangyoku laughed out loud. She rolled up her sleeves and went to the water barrel. "Well, you better go right away and find out. And if you're not going to be back tonight, be sure to let us know!"
"I figured it was you," Youko said when she walked into the guest suite at the inn and recognized the prim face.
He opened his eyes suspiciously and leaned forward. Then quickly and politely bowed. The cloak fell from his shoulders.
"Forgive me for beckoning you here."
He certainly did present himself well. Compared to his usual attire, he had about himself an air of frugality, but that was because he couldn't very well show up here in full ministerial dress.
"That was some way of getting my attention."
The bellhop who had showed her to the room gave her a meaningful look. He left the room and wordlessly closed the doors behind him.
Youko let out a deep sigh. "Forget it," she said, pulling out a chair and sitting down. From next to her ankles she heard what sounded like snickering laughter. "Oh, Hankyo. You know, you could have sent Hankyo for me."
"I wished to see what kind of place this orphanage was. Should I not have?"
"Hey, fine with me. So, Keiki, why come all the way here?"
Keiki took a scroll from the stationery box resting on his knees and rolled it out on the table. "Do you have your Imperial Seal?"
"Do I have my what?" Youko shook her head and grinned. "Sorry, didn't bring it with me."
"Some paperwork that needs to be taken care of. Tomorrow, I'll have Hankyo go fetch it."
She took each of the documents from a stationery box. Although she had left everything in Keiki's care, the decrees of high government officials still required the Imperial Seal. She unwound the scrolls and scanned the text. She could hardly read a word, so she couldn't do much more than skim over it. She'd have to get Keiki to read it aloud for her in order to understand it.
"And how is the rike?"
"What? Oh, it's great. Enho's a good man, and I love the kids."
"Is that so? That is good to know."
"Which isn't to mean I don't have any concerns," Youko muttered.
"Ah," said Keiki, lowering his voice. "As for your inquiries about Shoukou, I examined the civil service records and asked around the ministries. He is the governor of Shisui Prefecture, Wa Province. A high-ranking official of no good repute."
"Seems to be a lot of that in Wa Province: Marquis Gahou, Governor Shoukou."
"He has crossed the line many times. The ministers are desperate to discipline him, but no matter what happens, Gahou watches his back and covers everything up."
"Enho calls Gahou a jackal who shed its tail."
"A fair description."
"Fortunately, Shisui happens to be close by. I was curious to see for myself what this Shoukou was like. I'd also like to check out the capital of Wa Province."
"You shouldn't be taking unnecessary risks."
"I don't. I'll be careful."
Keiki gave Youko a sideways glance. "Really? I can smell blood on you."
"Eh?" Youko sniffed at her sleeves.
"It is blood, is it not? Though I do not wish to imply that Your Highness was the cause of it."
"Oh, that's right. I came across an accident. It happened a few days ago. Can you still smell it?"
"It strikes me as the blood of an innocent, spilled without a curse, so it is not acrid. I do worry for your well being."
Accursed blood. Youko smiled darkly to herself. Keiki used that description often when she was battling the pretender. No matter how much magnanimity you displayed, when you killed someone or ordered their death, the malice and bitterness in the blood hung like a fog around her. Kirin could not abide blood, and the scent of such accursed blood pained them.
"Don't worry about it."
Keiki--and all kirin--ate nothing tinged with blood. They weren't forced to reject it out of hand, but even foods fried or sauteed in suet would harm their bodies. According to Rokuta, kirin of En, that was why kirin swept away to Yamato never lived long. The shortened lifespan of a kirin without a king was approximately thirty years. A kirin in Yamato could last maybe a third that long.
Such were the kind of creatures that kirin were.
"Really. I can take care of myself."
"I earnestly pray that you will."
"So, how are things going in Gyouten?" Youko asked, with a bit of forced cheerfulness.
Keiki responded with a dour expression. He said, "Without Your Highness there . . . " and sighed.
As usual, the warring ministers had divided the court into two factions. Although Seikyou, the previous Chousai, had lost de facto authority, and Taisai, leader of the opposition, had died, things had pretty much stayed the same. Left with no real authority of consequence to toss around, Keiki's sense was that they had less interest in governance than in fighting petty turf battles.
The things some people were saying as if true: fearing regicide, the empress fled to Yamato. She had sought refuge in En. She had hidden herself deeply within the palace compound. Others went so far as to say she had been kidnapped by Marquis Koukan of Baku Province. What they all had in common was the criticism that she had abandoned the throne and grave doubts that she would ever return to it.
As Keiki explained all this, Youko took a breath and let it out. "I see."
"And there are those who claim that because things were not going the way you desired at the palace, you grew frustrated and appealed to the Royal En and will henceforth staff the court with bureaucrats from En."
"What?" said Youko. She bit her lip and then cynically laughed. "But, of course. Without the help of the Royal En, they think I couldn't have done a thing by myself."
It was true, though. And it vexed her, having to depend on others like this.
"I consider it all nonsense. But perhaps you have entertained such thoughts?"
Youko felt a shiver go through her. "Why ask me a question like that?" Her green eyes darkened. "Is this something you have your own doubts about?"
Feeling the weight of her displeasure, Keiki unconsciously averted his gaze. He who could stare down a youma could not look his lord in the eye.
"At least you have to believe in me."
"Look, no one has less faith in me than myself. More than anybody else, I doubt my qualifications to be empress. There have been rulers who let these doubts and suspicions overcome them and fell from the Way. That is why, if nobody else in this world believes me, you have to."
"Yes," he said, bowing.
Youko opened the scroll in her hand. "Do you have to return right away?"
"A quick return would be problematic. I have supposedly traveled to En."
Youko grinned. "Of course. So, would you like to take a trip to Takuhou?"
"Takuhou in Shisui Prefecture, I take it."
Youko nodded. "The capital of Wa Province, what is it, again?"
"You mean, Meikaku?"
"Yeah. I'm thinking of going to Meikaku, and stopping by Takuhou on the way. I'd like to see what things are like in Wa Province. You can be my tour guide."
"Yes, but . . . . " Keiki hesitated.
Once again her eyes darkened. "I'd like you to see it, too, Keiki. I want you to see the Kei you don't see from the palace."
"Well, then, let's straighten out all this paperwork. Sorry, but would you read it aloud to me?"
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
11-4 "Enho," Youko called out. She stopped in front of the screen doors to the study.
"Is that you, Youko?" came the warm reply.
"Excuse me," she said, and walked in. Enho was sitting at his desk by the window. He glanced over his shoulder at her. She said, "Sorry, but could I have a few minutes of your time?"
"Go ahead. What's on your mind?"
It was as if he had anticipated her concerns. Youko smiled nervously. "I was thinking of going to see the capital of Wa Province."
"Meikaku. So you've developed an interest in Wa?"
"Yes," she answered honestly. "Rangyoku says that she'd rather arrange a marriage of convenience than accept a homestead in Wa. Better to marry and then get divorced. That got me curious about what makes Wa Province such a rotten place. I want to prevent her doing something like that, if I can. Rangyoku would surely not do it because she wants to. That conditions in this kingdom could drive someone to . . . . "
Enho suddenly smiled. Taken somewhat aback, Youko queried, "Enho?"
"I see. Marriage is a more conservative tradition in Japan." He motioned to her, and as she usually did, Youko sat down in the chair next to him. "You needn't fret that much over this. Marriage is not so weighty an institution here. Tell me, why do people get married in Japan?"
"Um . . . because it's lonely all by yourself."
"And that's why people feel it necessary to get married? It's certainly true that living without a spouse is lonely. So people want somebody to be close to. Here it's called a common law marriage."
"Well, I guess there's the problem with children."
"In this world, children are only born when a petition is brought to the riboku. You must be married to do so, else the Rishi will not allow it. But if you simply wish to live with someone, formal marriage is not necessary."
"If you want children, you have to get married. Otherwise, a common law marriage will do. In order to petition for a child, a couple must reside in the same town and attend the same Rishi. That's pretty much the way it works. So if you get married, you have to move. One of them has to move to the other's city. Splitting up by itself doesn't mean they'll have to move back to the town they came from. And if their current hometown is an unwelcoming place, they may seek out relatives elsewhere."
"So you can move to different kingdoms that way?"
"Yes, you can. But you have to transfer your census registry to the same kingdom as your spouse. You can't marry a citizen of another kingdom. This is one of the Divine Decrees and must be observed. To ask for children, you must be married and residing in the same town, and to get married you must both be citizens of the same kingdom."
Enho flashed a knowing smile. "When it comes to the riboku, there is no other way but to petition Tentei. It possibly has to do with the same reason that a king must be from the kingdom he rules. Apparently, there was once a king who solemnized a marriage between a man and woman from different kingdoms. Even though they went to the riboku and tied a ribbon to the branch, they were never given a child. Eventually they dissolved the union. The Reason of the World rejected them."
"That is strange," Youko said to herself.
Enho smiled nonchalantly. "In Japan, God is not necessary. But here, God is. Tentei is necessary for the logic and reason of the world to work. Are you familiar with the first of the Divine Decrees?"
"That the temporal world must be ruled with humanity, according to the Way."
"Correct. Turn your back on the Way and you will inevitably oppress the people. There is an absolute cost for straying from the Way. You can turn your back on the Divine Decrees and establish your own laws, but they will never work to your satisfaction. The Reason of the World is woven into the Divine Decrees. As it says in the legends, Tentei Himself handed down the Divine Decrees to us."
"Makes sense." Such a strange world this is, Youko once again thought to herself.
"Based on what you have told me, marriage in Japan is designed for the protection of the family. It is a system structured to preserve the integrity of the family bloodline. Here, though, there is nothing like a family bloodline. When a child turns twenty, he separates from the household. No matter how wealthy a person might become, that wealth cannot be passed on to his children. When a person turns sixty, his land and house are transferred back to the kingdom. If he wishes, he may hold onto it for the entirety of his life, yet it cannot be left to anyone upon his death. Only accumulated savings can be bequeathed to a spouse, but only because it was wealth generated by the both of them. And when the spouse dies, it is all transferred back to the kingdom. In turn, no matter how poor a person might be, it becomes the kingdom's responsibility to feed them if they can't feed themselves."
"Well, then, why have children in the first place?"
Enho smiled. "Tentei looks to the hearts of the parents and gives them children accordingly. In other words, becoming parents is Heaven's way of recognizing their qualities as human beings. At night, it's said that the souls of children slip away from their bodies and fly to the Five Sacred Mountains, where they tell Tentei how their parents are treating them. After death, that is how people are judged."
"Could that perhaps be seen in religious terms?"
"Better to view it in ethical or moral terms. The rearing of the child given you brings you closer to virtue, closer to the Way. In fact, there is no profit in having a child. It takes time and money."
"So that is why a child leaves home at the age of twenty."
"That is the case. And that is why parents devote themselves to their children. To despise a child is to despise Heaven. By serving their children, they are serving Heaven."
"It must seem strange to you. So it would be to anybody who speaks of pedigree in terms of bloodline. The closest thing to a pedigree is a surname. A marriage may be registered under either spouse's census records. Your own name doesn't change, but the records are unified under one or the other's name. The child thus inherits the name registered under that unified record. The significance of this is that when the incumbent emperor is found lacking in moral virtue and a change of dynasties is carried out, a person of the same surname cannot accept the Divine Mandate."
"The originally registered name of the previous Royal Kei, the late Yo-o, was Jo. And your parents did not have the surname of Jo. In the case of Kou, the surname of the previous king was Chou. Therefore, the next king will not carry the surname of Chou. The king of Hou has fallen. His surname was Son. You can be assured that the next ruler of Hou will not be a Son."
"I see. So that means that my friend Rakushun could never become king of Kou."
"If his surname is Chou, then throughout all history I know of no case when it has ever happened. It is the unalterable Reason of the World. You cannot change the name you were born with. Even if your parents divorce, it does not change. When you marry, it does not change. That is why people have what is called an inherent family name. It is the only real function and meaning of the family name."
"That is completely different from common practice in Japan."
"Indeed," Enho laughed. "In Japan, it seems that once people get married, they're determined to stick it out one way or another. Here, people get married and divorced on quite a regular basis, with no qualms about raising other people's children. In fact, remarrying with stepchildren is highly regarded. Perhaps because the more children you have, the more blessed you must be. To become a parent in the first place you must have a certain quality of character."
"At the end of the day, there are also people who don't wish for children. Because there is no necessity for them to marry, they settle for a common law marriage. Because getting married does involve a vexing amount of paperwork, those who have given up on children accept the situation and make do with a common law marriage. It's not uncommon for such arrangement to take place even while maintaining separate households. But if you're unwise enough to take as a partner someone who doesn't live in your general vicinity, you're unlikely to meet except during the winter."
"It's more complicated when a couple are also civil servants. When you work for the government, obviously you have to move. You wouldn't get married to get split apart, so the road to advancement would necessarily be limited. To prevent such a disagreeable outcome, many avoid marriage."
If that was true, then there must be a lot of single people amongst the ministers. Those deciding to marry would be unlikely to choose a civil servant as a spouse.
"To the people of this world, such are the limits of marriage. It is important to those who want children, and lacking in significance to those who do not."
"Huh," said Youko, taking a breath. And right now, getting a partition in the right place was more important to Rangyoku than having a child. That was the extent of the problem.
"It really is different," she said to herself, and then hung her head. "But can I get married?"
Enho forced a smile. "The monarch is not a human being."
"I'm not . . . I guess."
"If you were already married, technically speaking, once you acceded to the throne the marriage would be annulled and become a common law marriage. Consequently, you can't have children. However, you can bestow the rank of royal consort upon a companion, such as queen or prince. Your children, Youko, are the citizens of Kei. You serve Heaven by serving them. A married couple serves Heaven by rearing their children. There is no difference."
"I guess not," she said with a nod.
Enho smiled. "Go wherever you must. It is well and proper that you see to the welfare of your children."
Youko bowed. "Starting tomorrow, then, I shall ask for your leave."
Youko rolled over on her bed and stared at the ceiling. Your children are the citizens of Kei. You serve Heaven by serving them.
Back in Japan, she had never given much thought to God. She had a hard time grasping what the existence of a god like Tentei was supposed to mean to her. "Serving God" was a concept she was not familiar with. She sighed deeply. She heard from somewhere the sound of a firm voice. "Your Highness . . . there are men."
Begging her pardon, Hankyo's presence vanished and then shortly reappeared. "There are at least five men outside the rike."
Youko got up. "Who are they?"
"I do not know. Ah, they have left."
"By your command," said Hankyo and slipped away.
Hankyo was back the next morning. "They spent the night in Hokui, left the gates this morning and were looking for a wagon going to Takuhou."
Youko fastened the straps of her knapsack. "No doubt about it. I've got to go back to Takuhou and see for myself what's going on."
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
Part XII (Chapter 45)
She was wandering around looking for an inn when she heard the voice behind her. Because she had the sansui, she had to stay at an inn with stables. Stealing a pegasus was a serious crime, but they were so valuable that given the chance, no thief was likely to pass it up. At least according to the man who sold it to her. Pretty sure that there ought to be an inn with stables that wasn't all that expensive, she set off for the neighborhood where she'd stayed before.
She turned around. There amidst the bustle of people was the boy she'd met at the cemetery. "It's you . . . . "
He slipped through the throng piling up at the gates before closing and ran over to her. "You came back? Why?"
Suzu tilted her head to the side. "What are you asking for?"
"You went somewhere, didn't you? You left the inn, so I thought you'd taken off for good."
Suzu remembered that his name was Sekki. "How do you know what inn I was staying at?"
On the day they had met, he hadn't come with her to the inn. They had gone their separate ways in the main boulevard.
Sekki shrugged guiltily. "Ah, sorry. I tailed you."
"I was worried about you. I thought you might try to get back at Shoukou somehow."
Suzu gulped. "Don't be silly."
"So you're fine, then? And the pegasus? You went to buy it?"
"Yeah. I got tired of traveling by wagon. I don't have to worry about carrying a sick kid around any more." She laughed cynically and Sekki looked away. She said, "Fine by me. So, do you know a cheap inn with stables?"
She didn't have much left in her purse, and inns with stables just weren't that common.
Sekki raised his head. "I live at an inn. It's a bit run down and it doesn't have stables, but the back yard should be big enough for a pegasus. But that's okay, 'cause nobody's going to try and steal anything from us." He took hold of her hand. "You can stay with us. Besides, our rates are good."
Sekki's house was located in a run-down block of the city. Men loitering along the way gave Suzu and the sansui suspicious glances as they passed by.
Leading the sansui along, Suzu asked, "You're sure this is okay? It looks like a pretty dangerous neighborhood."
Sekki grinned. "No worries. Ah, here we are."
Suzu looked in the direction he was pointing. It was a bit old but well-kept inn. Sekki ran ahead to the side of the entrance, opened the wooden door, and motioned to her to follow. "Let's go in here."
Inside the door was an alleyway where some barrels and buckets were stored. Through the alleyway was a small courtyard and vegetable garden. Sekki pointed at the hedge. "You can tie it up there. Do you know what it eats?"
"Hay and fodder."
"We'll get some for you. In the meantime, we can water it."
Sekki went to the well and lowered a bucket into the water. Right at that moment, the back door opened and a man appeared there. He was so tall she had to look up at him.
"What are you doing with a fine beast like that, Sekki?" His eyes focused on Suzu. He gave her a very suspicious look. Hauling up the bucket, Sekki turned and smiled at him. He said, "It's hers. She's staying here. I told you before, remember? The girl I met in the cemetery."
"Ah," the man said, nodding. He grinned broadly, flashing a friendly smile. "Yeah, that was pretty awful. Come on in. It's something of a dump, though."
"Do you also work at this inn?"
She was shown into the kitchen and invited to sit down. Suzu politely took a seat. The man dipped a ladle into a big pot, filled the teacup and set it down in front of her. He cut a pretty rough figure as a waiter.
"I guess you could say I'm the landlord. In fact, it's Sekki that's keeping the books."
"You're his older brother?"
"Yeah. And he works me like a dog." He laughed in a loud voice. "I'm Koshou. And you are?"
"That's an odd-sounding name."
"I'm a kaikyaku."
"Hoh," he said, a surprised look in his eyes.
Suzu was surprised, too. To be honest, claiming to be a kaikyaku hardly aroused any feelings in people at all. When she thought back about it now, whenever she said that she was a kaikyaku, she kept expecting something dramatic to happen.
"Must have been rough."
Suzu shook her head. She hadn't suffered much during her journeys. She was healthy, and even though her parents had died long ago, she hadn't been chased out of her hometown. Her life was still her own and that was no small thing.
"Koshou, you shouldn't bring guests here." Sekki came into the kitchen and gave his older brother a playful glare.
"Oh, this is okay, isn't it?"
"No, it's not. Now, go find out where we can get hay or fodder."
"Okay, okay," Koshou replied cheerfully. He smiled at her and left the kitchen.
Watching him leave, Sekki sighed. "Sorry. My big brother really isn't much of a gentleman."
"It's fine. Sorry about making you run around looking for fodder. I don't want you to go to too much trouble."
"Don't worry about it," Sekki laughed. "Let me show you to your room. Please forgive the fact that it's a tad unkempt."
Despite being located in this neighborhood, the inn had guests. There were four guest rooms, and in the three days she'd been staying there so far, occupants had come and gone. A bunch of men hung out in the tavern on the first floor. They weren't exactly a high-class bunch and they (and the occasional woman) seemed to be there all the time, talking together in hushed voices. The house across the alleyway that led to the back garden also saw a lot of comings and goings.
This is a strange inn, Suzu thought as she straightened up her things. After some thought, she placed her purse with what few coins remained on top of her bags. She slung a long, thin pack over her shoulder. In the darkened courtyard, she saddled up the sansui.
"You going out at this hour?" asked Koshou, coming out of the house.
Suzu nodded. "I thought I'd go for a walk."
"The gates are closed. Where you going?"
Suzu didn't answer. Koshou leaned forward and gave her a hard look. "Take care," he said, with a wave of his hand. The light from the kitchen glittered dully off the ring on his finger.
Suzu bowed her head, took up the reins, and turned toward the alley.
Oh, yes, it's from a chain, she thought, settling into the saddle. The thin ring that Koshou wore, it was the link of chain. A slender strand of steel just big enough to wrap around a finger, it would be otherwise linked together to form a chain belt. She had seen them decorating the leather belts that the less-privileged classes wore. They'd taken one apart and wore the links on their fingers. A short chain like that hung in a corner of the kitchen like a talisman.
Sekki wears one, too.
Not only Sekki. Now and then, a man she passed in the hallway did, or one of the men lounging around the tavern. Perhaps most or all of the people coming in and out of the inn.
She felt like she'd chanced across something quite strange and curious. Feeling a touch of melancholy, she exited onto the main thoroughfare. It was already night, and even the number of drunks on the street had begun to decrease.
The prefectural hall was located in the center of the city. The prefectural offices occupied the grounds within the fortress walls that surrounded the castle-like complex. On the inner loop road that ran around the walls was a large mansion facing eastwards.
Shoukou, the governor of Shisui Prefecture, the beast of Takuhou.
He had an official residence within the inner castle. A second residence, a large house in Takuhou's second district. And a huge estate in the countryside outside Takuhou.
Suzu had recently taken to walking down this street and had determined that of his three residences, he was currently staying at the one on the inner loop road. The estate in the countryside was solely for entertaining invited guests. The house on the inner loop road was for when he had work to attend to at the prefectural hall. The third house seemed to be reserved for other occasions. This meant the beast was up to his usual tricks at the prefectural offices. She couldn't begin to imagine what sort of sinister plans he was cooking up, but there was no doubt that they weren't for the benefit of the people of Shisui.
Suzu cast a cold look at the house and rode the sansui to the street corner. On the grounds of a deserted Taoist temple, she dismounted and sat down in an inconspicuous spot with a view of the currently-closed gate of the temple.
Now we wait, Seishuu.
She reached inside her vest and touched the handle of the dagger tucked into the sash of her kimono. The blade could cut a youma apart. It could cut apart a wizard as well. She had already determined that the sansui could vault the wall inside the loop road. Anything that could jump over that wall could easily trespass the wall of the house. If the master of the house was present, he would be sleeping in the back. And, in fact, to the back of the building that faced the road was a luxurious, multistoried house.
I will make him feel our bitterness and pain.
She hugged her arms tightly around her knees.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
12-2 In the dead of night, Suzu led the sansui to the inner loop road. She turned down an alleyway adjacent to Shoukou's house and stared up at the multistoried building rising over the wall.
She'd leap across the wall and charge into the building. She would dispatch Shoukou and then jump down onto the road and head for Gyouten. There she would arrange an audience with the Royal Kei.
I won't forgive them. Not Shoukou and not the Royal Kei.
She repeated the words as if to convince herself and took up the reins of the sansui.
A hand closed over hers. "No."
Suzu sprang back, colliding with the sansui. The sansui neighed a discontented growl. She looked behind her. The shadow at her back had the height and width of a boulder.
Another person appeared behind her and tore the reins from her grasp. A man she recalled seeing at the inn.
It just wasn't Koshou and the other man. A number of others were hiding in the shadows along the narrow alleyway.
Koshou softly wrapped Suzu on the knuckles. He said in a low voice, "Shoukou isn't the only one inside that house. There's guards all over the place. You gonna kill all of them?" He pulled on her arm. "C'mon. We're going home."
"No. Let me go."
Koshou glared at her. "If Shoukou finds out you've been staying with us, we're all dead men."
Suzu caught her breath.
"They wouldn't kill you right then and there. That's the problem. It'd cause all kind of trouble."
"I . . . . "
Suzu looked at the building rising over the wall and then back at Koshou. She had not intended to cause Sekki or Koshou any grief, but right there in front of her was the house of the enemy.
Koshou patted her on the back. "I know how you feel, kid. So I'm asking you to come back with us."
Men were camped out in front of the inn. When Suzu returned together with Koshou, Sekki ran up to them from behind the wall of men. He was holding a lantern. He said, "Suzu . . . thank God."
The men echoed this opinion. Suzu bowed to them. Koshou again patted her on the back. He said, "Sorry about this, everybody. But we brought her back okay."
The crowd sighed in relief. As they left in ones and twos, they patted her on the back as well.
"Good to see you're okay."
"Now, don't you be going off half-cocked like that."
"Gave us a hell of a fright, girl."
She had really put Koshou and the rest of them in a tight spot. But as she watched them walk away, the lack of censure in their voices perplexed her.
At Koshou's prodding, Suzu went into the inn and sat down in the tavern. One of the men took the sansui around back.
A number of men were in the kitchen. Ten more came into the tavern with her. An older man hurried out of the kitchen and placed a steaming teacup in front of her. She realized that her body was chilled to the core and her teeth were chattering. She wrapped her hands around the teacup and warmed her frozen hands.
"So," said Koshou, resting his hands on the table and looking down at her. Her eyes focused on the steel ring on his finger. "You hate Shoukou?"
Suzu tore her eyes away from the ring and looked up. "I hate him."
"You're not the only one. Not the only one who knows what it's like to have that kind of hate in your heart. You got yourself a mean weapon there. Do you even know how to use it? What exactly did you think you were going to do to Shoukou?"
"Do you know how many bodyguards he's got in that house? And how many of them you'd have to fight to get to his room?"
She bowed her head.
"Suzu, it ain't possible. He's not the kind of enemy that just anybody can take down in a fit of rage."
His eyes softened. "It's really too bad about the kid."
Suzu stared up at him. Her vision blurred. All at once, everything bottled up inside her came pouring out. "Seishuu . . . " she sobbed. "He was . . . really sick. And I killed him. He had to run away from Kei and escaped to Kou. Then his village in Kou was destroyed and he had to run away again. His dad got killed by a youma right in front of him and then his mom died. He was sick from getting wounded by the youma. He was really, really sick. A little scratch like that and he suffered so much."
"I know." Koshou patted her tightly clenched hands.
"I was going to find a cure for him. We were on our way to Gyouten. He just got worse and worse every morning. No matter what he ate, he couldn't keep it down. He was getting so thin. He couldn't walk straight, could hardly see . . . . "
The hot tears burned down her cheeks. "I shouldn't have let him there. I was looking for an inn, but I should have carried him with me. If I had, he wouldn't have ended up getting killed."
He was so thin, he weighed hardly anything at all.
"I shouldn't have come here in the first place. I should have taken him to a doctor in another city."
"Don't hate yourself so, Suzu," Sekki said. Suzu turned to him. He was sitting next to her, watching her intently. He said, "You hate yourself more than you hate Shoukou. More than punishing Shoukou, you want to punish yourself."
Suzu blinked. "Yes. That's true." The tears continued to well up, falling like rain. "I shouldn't have left him there. I shouldn't have come here. It's my fault. If only I hadn't brought him with me!"
She'd been all wrapped up in her fantasies, and Seishuu had died because of it. "He didn't want to die. Oh, he never stopped cracking wise about it, but he was scared about dying, too. But he did. It's my fault, and there's no fixing it now. It's no use saying I'm sorry or asking for forgiveness now!"
Wracked by sobs, she couldn't speak for a long moment.
"That girl, she told me that he forgave me. But I don't forgive me!"
"But, Suzu, no matter how hard you struggle and suffer, you won't resurrect the dead. That's just the way it is."
"What you tried to do would have amounted to nothing, and that's wrong. If all you are is your anger and resentment, if you think it's okay to kill people to revenge a personal grudge, then you are no better a murderer than Shoukou."
"So you're saying I should forgive him? I've heard what kind of person he is. He's made lots of people suffer just like Seishuu. That's why I was going to kill him. You expect me to forgive something like that?"
Koshou slapped her on the back. "Didn't say nothing about forgiving him." When she looked up, he laughed. "Show your hate for Shoukou and you'll taste his retribution. That's what everybody's afraid of, why they all keep their mouths shut. See no evil, hear no evil. But don't you be thinking there's nothing but cowards in Shisui."
"Koshou, you . . . . "
Suzu raised her head. She glanced at Sekki. Then at the men in the tavern who were all quietly watching over her.
"All of you . . . . "
They all wore those same steel rings.
"Shoukou will fall. We're only waiting for the right moment. We were afraid you were going to tip our hand." Koshou took a chain from his jacket pocket. He unfastened a link from the chain and presented it to Suzu. "Forget Shoukou and go somewhere else and live a carefree life. Or take this." He added, a severe expression on his face, "But if you do, you may never remove it. Betray us and be prepared to accept the consequences."
"Give it to me." Suzu reached out her hand. "I'll never betray you. I'll do whatever it takes to free myself--and Seishuu--from this grudge!"
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
12-3 Shoukei climbed Mt. Koushuu to the border of En and Kei and entered Kei. The name of the city at the border checkpoint was Gantou. Thanks to Rakushun, she had no problems crossing the border.
Parting with her in the Kei part of the city, Rakushun returned to En. Shoukei watched him leave and couldn't help but hang her head and say, Thank you.
He'd arranged a passport for her, and given her traveling money out of his own pocket. He'd given her a lot. He brought her this far and hadn't begrudged her a thing. She couldn't begin to thank him.
"Oh, damn," she said to herself, as Rakushun's waving tail faded out of view. She hadn't thanked him in person. She'd never apologized to anyone. Back in Hou, back in the sticks, she'd groveled to Gobo. In the palace in Kyou, she'd groveled to the Royal Kyou. But never with any sincerity. She'd never thanked anybody from the bottom of her heart. She hadn't even been sorry about it.
When she raised her head again, Rakushun was gone from the broad, finely-maintained streets of En. He was probably already on the suugu and galloping back to Kankyuu.
She took a breath and cast a glance back over her shoulder. The kind of differences you saw here at the border of En and Kei were not dissimilar to those at the border of Ryuu and En.
So this is Kei.
The city straddled the summit of the Koushuu Mountains. From the gate separating En and Kei, the city stretched out over the terraced slopes. A commanding view of the city opened up from the thoroughfare before the center gate. At the same time, the kingdom spread out from foot of the Koushuu Mountains.
Along with Shoukei, many others also stopped there on the street and gazed out at their surroundings and breathed sighs of resignation. Compared to En, the view was a desolate one. No snow lay on the wintry countryside, and the lack of snow cover only accentuated the lonely, barren view.
The border city was big. Nevertheless, the hustle and bustle were sadly lacking. Small buildings huddled together along narrow streets paved with compacted earth. It was warmer here compared to cities in the north, but all the windows were tightly shut. Windows glazed with glass were scarce as hen's teeth. It seemed a city stubbornly refusing to extend a welcome to anybody.
The wrecked buildings were everywhere, only the skeletons of their structures remaining behind. The jumble of motley shops lined the road, from the cramped buildings spilled a tide of smashed jars and jugs and furniture and household implements. Countless small huts, shutting out the wind with scrapped wood and old rags, perched along the outer loop road encompassing the city. Ragged, weary people crowded sullenly around the bonfires.
Kei was a country in turmoil. Here the precedent of a long-lived king did not exist. The most bitter difference between En and Kei was the long rule of a single monarch.
Large numbers of people flowed into the Kei side of the city, and the greatest portion of them were refugees.
"I thought it would have improved a bit more," muttered a despondent man, who seemed to speak for the crowds of people flowing down the street. "Yeah, I shouldn't have come back."
Shoukei heard the sighs from people in the group.
"Is it all this rotten, I wonder? It sure doesn't look good."
"I left the country after the empress died. I had no idea it had gotten this bad."
"Yeah, it's hard," Shoukei thought to herself as she walked along. It's going to be hard fixing up this kingdom.
The refugees were a headache to En, but so they were to Kei. People who had been to En couldn't help comparing it to Kei. In fact, compared to her home kingdom of Hou, the condition of Kei wasn't so bad to make her despair. Yet the differences between En and Kei were as obvious as the nose on your face. Side by side with the prosperity and liveliness of En, the Kei side of the city looked a wreck.
The group of people continued on down the street together and entered a cheap inn. She finally found a three-story building with vacancies. Big rooms, but you had to share accommodations.
The refugees staying at the inn expressed a variety of sentiments: from those happy they were able to return to their home country, earnestly optimistic about the future, to those nursing the broken dream of moving back to a blessed, wealthy kingdom and living the easy life.
"You hear that about the empress?"
Shoukei overheard several people talking together in a corner of the guest quarters.
"An empress? Again?"
"If I'd known that, I would have stayed in En."
"Empresses are no good. They don't have what it takes. It's all going to hell in a handbasket soon enough."
"The minute it starts heading down that road, we're hightailing it to En."
"I'm telling you, the next time we leave, we're never coming back."
Yeah, it really was a mess. Shoukei sighed. For some reason, the Royal Kei didn't seem like a stranger to her. When she thought about what it must be like to be the Empress, she had to sigh in sympathy.
And right now she's probably in the palace thinking the same thing.
"I wonder if we just should head back now."
"Never happen. There's nothing left for us in En. No matter how you slice it, we weren't born in En."
"Yeah, but we can't go back to where we was born, neither."
"Hopefully something's left of our hometown."
"Forget it." One of the men leaned forward. "You know anything about ships leaving from Goto?"
"Warships headed to Tai. One of the governors in Wa Province been dispatching them, or so's I hear. Seems they're picking up refugees in Tai and bringing them here."
"News to me. You gotta be crazy, heading off to Tai, now? Put a cork in it."
"Not, I'm not talking about that. Let's see, where was it . . . yeah, Shisui. The governor of Shisui, he sends out these boats 'cause of how sorry he feels for the refugees and all. If you get on board and make it to Shisui, he'll give you a plot of land and register you on the census."
"Shisui, Wa Province . . . that's right on the border of Ei Province."
"Hey, if they can take care of refugees like that, Shisui's got to be doing great, right? If we ask, they got to welcome us in, right?"
"Nonsense." A woman waved her hand dismissively. "It's all sweet talk. People pulling the wool over your eyes."
"It ain't. I heard the same from other people as well. Right?"
There was a lull in the conversation.
"They got you believing in tall tales, all right. That's all they are."
"That can't be true. C'mon, no one's heard of it before? Really?"
In response to his query, Shoukei raised her voice. "I have."
The tight little group suddenly opened up, its attention falling on her. The one man approached her. "It's true, isn't it? I knew it!"
"Well, um, I heard about it in Ryuu. I heard about it from a sailor who worked on ships that sailed from Ryuu to Tai. He said there were ships like that."
A flurry of conversation followed, all of them arguing at the same time about how well off Shisui must be, and how their hometown might not even exist anymore.
"So why don't we just go see for ourselves?"
"My village got destroyed when the river flooded its banks."
"I'd still rather go back to where I was born."
They ended up split down the middle, between those who wanted to start for Shisui right away, and those who thought it all a pack of lies and argued that nothing good would come of it.
"Where'd you come from?" one of them asked Shoukei.
She tilted her head to one side. "I'm from Hou. You know, I'd like to get a homestead of my own, but I'm not old enough." She could always fib about her age, but she wasn't sure about how to carry it off. "But if Shisui really is that wealthy, I don't see any harm in finding out for myself." She nodded to herself as she spoke. "I figure I've got to get a job somewhere, and it might as well be Shisui as anywhere else."
The next day, Shoukei started her journey to Shisui. She'd gotten used to traveling by wagon in Ryuu so that was how she'd decided to proceed. Unlike Ryuu and En, there were many people walking along the roads. In fact, it wouldn't be too cold to walk. The work of walking alone would keep you warm enough, aside from the tips of your feet and hands, to be tolerable.
The road headed south toward Meikaku, the capital city of Wa Province. The highway to Gyouten ran east to west through Meikaku and Shisui.
The devastation of the countryside was severe. Many of the buildings in the villages en route were destroyed. The wrecked fields lay fallow, the ashen forests blighted and burned. With so little snow, nothing was hidden from view. Now and then, in the countryside surrounding a hamlet where people lived, you could see the rows of earthen mounds. So many people had died.
It made her shudder. The ravaged mountains and streams, the loss of life. This was because of the king, because no king sat upon the throne.
"Miss, where you from?" an old man sitting next to her in the wagon asked.
Shoukei tore her eyes away from the view out of the back of the wagon. Many wagons in Kei traveled with the back uncovered.
"Hou," she said.
"Is it true, the stories about the king of Hou dying?"
"Huh." The old man hugged the onjaku to his chest. "So Hou's gonna go through this as well."
Shoukei's eyes widened in response to this matter-of-fact statement. It was true. Many people would die. Victims would begrudge their assailants, the same way she hated the Marquis Gekkei.
And so he should be hated, for bringing such destruction upon the kingdom. She said, "Kei is better off now, with a new empress on the throne."
The old man chuckled. "I suppose you could say it's getting better. But that's what we all thought the last time."
He didn't have anything more to say after that.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
12-4 Wa Province was east of Ei Province, stretching from the eastern border of Ei to the Kyokai. Along with Keiki, Youko was traveling to Meikaku, situated in the eastern quarter of the province. A large highway reached straight across Kei from the Kyokai to the Blue Sea. A second major route ran southward from the Koushuu Mountains. The roads intersected at Meikaku.
"Meikaku is an important overland stop," Keiki said.
Using the shirei, the journey took two days. They landed not far from Meikaku and walked the rest of the way.
"This road is the lifeline to the northern quarter of the kingdom. The terminal city of Goto is the only real port that Kei has on the Kyokai. Salt and rice shipped from the south, medicines from Shun, wool and barley from the north, all of these must be purchased with the surplus from agricultural harvest and supplied to the northern quarter to keep the people alive."
"The northern quarter is that poor?"
Keiki nodded. "It is a mountainous region with little arable land. It is dry during the summer, with a long rainy season starting in the fall. The harvest all depends on the weather, but there is no other industry they can turn to."
"Especially now, with shipping traversing the Blue Sea from the south largely at a standstill, Goto has become even more critical. On top of that, there is but one port of entry between En and Kei along the Koushuu Mountains, hence the importance of Gantou to the overland routes and Goto to the sea routes. Cargo coming into Kei from either must necessarily use these roads and pass through Meikaku."
"Could Wa Province be wealthy, despite being in the northern quarter?"
Keiki smiled sardonically. "It is said that highwaymen prowl the roads of Wa. In order to protect cargo shipments, Wa dispatches the provincial guard to build forts and protect the caravans. Because it is paid for with excise taxes, the cost of goods rises accordingly."
The unfortunate truth was that there was no way to avoid Wa Province when shipping anything from Gantou or Goto.
"Gahou certainly knows his business."
Keiki scowled. "I think not. There are big cities bordering Meikaku to the north and east that warehouse cargo and house travelers. They're called Hokkaku and Toukaku, and while part of Meikaku they are much bigger than Meikaku. Farmland was procured and leveled, tall walls constructed, and these cities were built from nothing just to house merchandise and people. The people who use those cities shoulder the entire burden. The people of Wa do the work. They're worked like slaves."
Youko said in exasperation, "Why should a man like Gahou be made a Marquis of as important a province as Wa?"
Keiki lowered his gaze. It was the Late Empress Yo-o who had given Wa Province to Gahou. Gahou presented her with a garden on the outskirts of Gyouten. It was a garden the size of a hamlet. Passing through the gates, you were presented with a scene of rustic beauty. A row of six homes, an old man who served as gamekeeper to the deer, a child to feed the pheasants.
Gahou gave Yo-o this beautiful little hamlet, in which the empress could live out her dream of a quiet, uneventful existence. She visited it often, and in thanks gave Gahou whatever he wished. That was how Wa Province came into his possession.
The empress surely was happiest when chatting with the villagers, trimming the grass in the gardens that surrounded the hamlet, teaching the children embroidery in a house built for that purpose. Would things have turned out differently, Keiki wondered, if she hadn't been able to indulge herself so. Every time he pled with her to return to the palace and she wept and refused and carried on, her eventual fate drew inexorably closer.
He should not have put her on the throne. It was not right for her, but the divine oracles had directed him to her. No one else was possible.
A soft voice called out to him. Keiki quickly collected himself. His new lord peered up at him, her head tilted quizzically. "What's up?"
"Oh, nothing," Keiki said, shaking his head. He raised his head and looked across the countryside. A mountain stream ran alongside the highway. Ahead of them was the soaring Ryou-un Mountain. You could see the walls rising up at its base.
"That looks to be Meikaku."
Meikaku Mountain pierced the Sea of Clouds. The gently sloping hills gathered about the foot of the mountain. The city snaked along the valleys beneath the ridgelines formed by the hills.
"This is the capital?"
Youko stood at the gates of Meikaku and looked down the main boulevard, a broad avenue almost devoid of life. The imperial and provincial capitals had eleven gates. District and prefectural capitals had twelve. In the case of the imperial and provincial capitals, the central north gate or Rat Gate, was left out. In its place, just north of the city was the Ryou-un and the imperial and provincial government offices.
Youko and Keiki entered Meikaku through the western or Rooster Gate. The main boulevard ran straight east seven hundred paces from the Rooster Gate to the municipal offices in the middle of the city. The street was a good hundred paces wide. In every other city, small shops lined the street making it much narrower, and the street itself would be thronged with people and wagons. But there wasn't a single shop in sight.
There was no evidence of the refugees camped out in the surrounding countryside. There were none of the impoverished and homeless people they had seen in every town and city they had passed along the way during the three days, traveling by means of Keiki's shirei. The place was lifeless. Not a store, not a roadside stall. No crowds coursing along the thoroughfares.
A number of the travelers who entered the gate with her looked over the wide street with equal surprise. Youko glanced to the right and left as she passed through the gate. A sullen man approached, walking through the gate with accustomed steps. Youko called out to him, "Excuse me."
The man stopped and turned his blank gaze to her.
"Something going on today?"
The man was carrying a heavy basket on his back. He cast a disinterested look at the street and then back to her and said with sleepy eyes, "Naw. Nothing."
"Yes, but it's almost nightfall."
"Nothing out of the ordinary here. If you're looking for an inn, better go to Hokkaku or Toukaku. For Hokkaku, go to the Boar Gate. For Toukaku, go to the Hare Gate."
He spoke curtly, and in a low voice. He swayed a bit, as if adjusted the load on his back, and then turned on his heels and without another word walked away.
It was not uncommon for cities to have a second or third much larger city appended to them. She had seen quite a few of them in En. The entire metropolis was often given a single name, but the appended cities were known to keep their original names as well.
"What do you think?" Youko asked under her breath.
Standing next to her, tying a bandana around his head, Keiki tilted his head and said, "Well. It is a bit too quiet."
"Yeah. I could understand there being no people here, but no stores or shops either?"
Surveying the shoulders of the avenue outside the gate as well, there was not even a pushcart to be seen. A few people here and there, the sound of the wheels of the occasional horse cart echoing in the empty air.
"Something happen?" asked the people who had just come through the gate.
Youko smirked unconsciously. "Yeah, I had the same question."
The other party was a group of three men. They looked across the wide boulevard, the confusion evident on their faces. "Is this Meikaku?"
"I've never seen a capital city this empty. You two from here?"
Youko shook her head. The men gave the street another puzzled examination. "No shops. No people."
"Something bad went on here?"
"If there'd been a disaster, they'd be flying a white flag."
When disaster befell a city, white flags were flown from the ramparts. With this forlorn sight in front of their eyes, travelers would know something had happened. But that didn't seem to be the case here.
They watched the men start guardedly down the street. Next to her, Keiki said, "I smell death."
An unpleasant expression briefly clouded his pale complexion. "This city is a swamp of human malice."
Youko spun around. "We're leaving."
"Your Highness?" he replied.
Youko glanced back over her shoulder. "There's a road through the countryside. The cities are to the north and east, right? There should be access from the outside. I'm not chancing going through the city and stressing you out."
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
Part XIII (49)
e don't have a name for ourselves," Koshou said, drawing water from the well. Next to him, Suzu rinsed out the buckets and jugs. "We number no more than a thousand. Most of us are in Shisui Prefecture."
"If you need something in the city, search out a person wearing this ring. Ask him where he's from. Guaranteed, he'll acknowledge you with an eshaku."
"Like this." He had Suzu hold out her hands and clench her left hand--but not tightly--and then cover the left hand with the right. She then raised her hands together and bowed. This was how people of stature greeted each other. To properly perform the eshaku, though, you should be wearing long sleeves. The jacket Suzu was wearing only came to her wrists.
"It feels funny."
Koshou smiled. "All that really matters is that you confirm that the person you're looking for is wearing a ring without drawing attention to it. When you ask where he's from, if he answers, Shikin in San County, Baku Province, then he's your man. If he asks your name, you say you're Otsu Etsu of Rou Shou."
"What's that mean?" Suzu asked with a quizzical expression.
Koshou chuckled. "Shikin is an old place name. Hundreds of years before, during the reign of King Tatsu, a wizard named Rou Shou showed up in Shikin."
"Was Shikin the location of his grotto?"
"No. Rou Shou didn't have a grotto. He was a wizard who gained his powers through the exercise of his own will. So he can be called Rou Shou or Shou Rou. This class of wizard uses the prefix Rou, meaning elder or old man. He's also called Count Shou."
"Oh, so he's a Senpaku, a self-made wizard who's an earl or count."
Wizards who had risen to the rank of count, and who had attained that rank by means of their own effort, also served at the Five Sacred Mountains. They were the Senpaku.
"He had been practicing his craft for the general public when King Tatsu invited him to serve in the Imperial Palace. His full name is Otsu Etsu. Nobody really knows if he existed or not. He shows up in legends and stories a lot."
"You may be asked the same things from a complete stranger. If someone else with a ring approaches you with these questions, you answer the same way."
"Oh, I see."
"If they're one of us, you can trust them, no matter what. It's guaranteed they'll help you. Our word is our bond. We take pride in it."
"All this in order to get rid of him?"
"Of course," Koshou nodded. "The countryside around Takuhou is crowded with graves. The bodies of the dead cover the land. Somebody has to take him down. Somebody has to bring him to justice."
Suzu stopped what she was doing. By him they mean the governor of Shisui Prefecture, Shoukou. She asked, "Why is someone like him allowed to get away with it?"
"It's said that there are people in high places who give him a pass."
"Like in Gyouten?" said Suzu, raising her head.
Koshou answered with a startled look. He put down the well bucket and sat down on the edge of the well. "Why do you say Gyouten?"
"A rumor I've heard to that effect. The most important person in Gyouten is protecting Shoukou."
"I see," Koushou muttered. "That certainly is being rumored about. It's said that none other than the Empress is protecting Shoukou. But I'm not convinced."
"It's not true?"
"I couldn't say. The one giving a free rein to Shoukou is Gahou."
"The Marquis of Wa Province. Shoukou's got the protection of the province lord. That's why he has a free rein. The Marquis is no less a beast than Shoukou. The only difference between them is, as villains go, Gahou is not as blind as Shoukou to appearances."
"The Late Empress Yo-o made Gahou Marquis of Wa. She was not competent enough to withstand him, and so he purchased it with his flattery. Protests were lodged, appeals were made, arms were raised in resistance, but she continued to indulge him."
"Even after the Empress acceded to the throne, he was left in power. There are those who don't believe he enjoys the support of the Empress, but it's not hard to believe. It was thanks to her that the Marquis of Baku was dismissed."
"The Marquis of Baku?"
Koshou stared up at the sky above the small courtyard. "The Marquis of the province to the west of Ei Province. The Marquis of Baku was greatly admired by his people. He is rumored to have been a wise and knowledgeable ruler. This past summer, before the Empress had claimed the throne, a pretender arose and cast the kingdom into turmoil. He resisted her to the very end."
"And for that he was dismissed? While Gahou and Shoukou remain?"
Koshou nodded. "Many people have their doubts about the Empress. None of us understand why the Marquis would be dismissed while Gahou is left where he is. On the other hand, the coronation was only recently. She may not be able to do anything about it."
Suzu sloshed the wash water out of the pail. "Doesn't seem to be much difference between this empress and the last one."
"Maybe so." Koshou gave her a good long look. "What exactly did you have in mind for the Royal Kei?"
Suzu averted her gaze. Koshou took a surprised breath. "You are one to act without thinking. Did you really have it in mind to go charging into Kinpa Palace? There's no way you could have pulled that off."
"You'll never know if you don't try."
Koshou pushed himself off the edge of the well and leaned over next to her. "That kid died in a bad way."
Suzu looked back at him, then looked at her hands.
"I hate to say it, but you can find unfortunate kids like that everywhere. They're hardly rare in this kingdom. This is a kingdom still in chaos. There are tragedies all over the place."
"Yeah. I know," Suzu said with a sigh. "I'm a kaikyaku."
"Yes," Koshou acknowledged with his eyes.
"I was thrown into this world where I could never go home again, I didn't understand what anybody said. I was truly pitiful."
"But I wasn't truly pitiful. Compared to Seishuu, I was really lucky. I didn't understand that and kept on feeling sorry for myself and insisted on bringing Seishuu all the way here."
"You shouldn't blame yourself like that."
Suzu shook her head. "I was really lucky. Oh, I've been in a tight spot or two, but a little patience and a backbone were all I needed. I never imagined someone like Shoukou causing so much suffering for so many people. I really can't stand myself now." She laughed. "It was really a temper tantrum. Instead of taking it out on myself, I tried taking it out on Shoukou. Like Sekki said, I really do hate myself. But--" she said, raising her head, "we can't let Shoukou be, can we?"
"No, we can't."
"I don't know about the rest of the kingdom, but Shisui is an accursed place and the people here suffer because of it. I want to make it so nobody suffers like that anymore. I want to make it so nobody ever dies the way Seishuu died."
"The fact is, I don't trust myself. I don't trust what my own pain and bitterness are telling me to do. But if you and Sekki hate Shoukou enough to want him dead, then it is okay for me to hate him, too?"
"Yeah . . . sure." With a shrug, the big man crouched down next to the well and sighed, self-effacing smile coming to his lips. "To tell the truth, I don't get it myself."
"If you can put something painful behind you, it's over. But being alive means there'll be no end to bad things happening. Still, worrying about every little thing gets you nowhere. Good things happen, too. Forget the bad and you can enjoy the good. You gotta keep putting one foot ahead of the other."
Suzu nodded and Koshou continued. "Honestly, I don't understand government and politics, complicated stuff like that. Whether or not Shoukou is a decent governor, I'm not one to say. Same with Gahou, same with the Marquis of Baku. Maybe Shoukou has some importance to the government. Maybe even a guy like that is useful to someone. But as for me, him being alive makes me tired."
"Makes you tired?"
"I'm a simple guy. When I hear about kids getting killed who did nothing wrong, I get mad. And getting mad makes you tired. It's hard to forget something that just rubs you the wrong way. Sekki's better at it than me. He went right from the county to the prefecture school, and even got into the district academy. His elementary school principal gave him a recommendation. There was nothing stopping him from becoming a government official. I gotta think he's got a bright future ahead of him. But I really can't say that makes me happy. So he becomes a government official, then what? If he gets into the government, is he gonna get used by Shoukou? Fall in with Gahou? I can't get excited about my little brother hanging around with people like that."
"Koshou . . . . "
"Sekki doesn't like it either. Even though he was interested in it, he quit. There are bad things you can't forget even if you want to. Things you can't be happy about even if you want to. Being that way wears me out. I hate it. Being alive is not enough. You want to feel good about life, right? You want to believe, hey, I'm glad I was born, I'm happy to be there. But as long as there are people like Shoukou around, I can't feel that way. That's why I gotta do something about it."
Suzu took a breath and let it out. "That's it?"
"That's it. If I thought I could storm the prefecture castle and kill Shoukou and put my mind at ease, I'd do it. But it wouldn't put my mind at ease. In the first place, I never could do it. When it comes to dealing with Shoukou, the only way I can think of is to approach him in numbers and force him from office. And if he said, over my dead body, well, then we'd have to oblige him. Anything I came up with on my own would be a waste. I haven't got enough self-discipline."
"I've got a temper like a kid. Sekki's the one to think things through."
Suzu laughed. "I perfectly understand where you're coming from."
"Yeah?" the big man smiled.
"Is there anything I can do?"
"Well, we need to borrow your sansui. We're collecting weapons. We can't go up against Shoukou and his bodyguards with shovels and hoes."
"So you need to transport some cargo?"
"Rou Hansei, a long-time friend of mine, is getting a shipment ready for us. Would it be okay for you to take your sansui there and back?"
Suzu nodded firmly. "Sure. No problem."
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
13-2 "This is Meikaku."
The driver dropped Shoukei off at the gates to the city. She looked at the ramparts in surprise. The haphazard state of the walls alone was a shock.
"What a strange city," she observed as she paid the driver.
He laughed scornfully. "That's what everybody says."
"I thought city walls were supposed to run in straight lines."
"Yeah," the young man said, gazing up at the walls.
The walls of a city as big as a provincial capital were normally wide enough to post sentries along the top. Merlons in the battlements provided cover for archers posted behind the parapets. Here and there structures called bastions ("horse faces") jutted out from the walls. Bastions were built in all shapes and sizes, but for no particular reason they were usually rectangular and of a fixed height.
But here at Meikaku, such regularity was hard to find. The wall would run along for a while at an impressive height and then suddenly dip down so low you could see the wall opposite. Some bastions were joined together by wall walks hardly wide enough to walk over. These structural undulations continued on like the untutored scribblings of a child.
Shoukei looked over her shoulder at the young driver. He again laughed sarcastically. "The only inns are in Hokkaku or Toukaku. Originally, the inns were in a bunch of warehouses outside the Boar Gate. They built a big wall around them and every year it gets bigger. Kind of a mess, huh? It's even worse inside, because the old walls were left in place. Try not to get lost."
"Thanks," Shoukei said.
The driver regarded the city walls with a nonplused expression and returned to the horse cart. Shoukei peered at the main gate. A big tunnel was carved into the wall. The gates were adorned with nothing more than a plain-looking pair of doors. The plate above the gate simply read, "Meikaku."
Like the driver had said, a crude rock pile of a wall obstructed the way. At the base of the wall, canvas tarps were stretched over jumbles of wooden planks to form a tent city crammed with huts and sheds barely big enough to lie down in. The overflowing crowds of people, their faces glum and ragged, pressed up against the gates. The refugees had built themselves a village in the vacant land that one good gust of wind would blow all to kingdom come.
When she stepped inside the city itself, its decrepit condition became even more apparent. She had to wonder how many laborers had been pressed into hard service building these pointless, meandering walls. Some were so squat and narrow that they appeared to have been dumped there as refuse. And the others were amazingly high and thick.
The streets zigzagged through the chaotic city, ending in blind alleys. Shoukei had never seen such a confusing place. Buildings built without any rhyme or reason. Horse carts haphazardly blocking the flow of traffic. Milling crowds of refugees only throwing everything into complete chaos.
"What is with this city?" Shouko said under her breath.
She noticed people casting apprehensive glances in one particular direction. A number of them passed by her with tight faces, heading down a road that apparently ran to the city center. One man walked forward with a hard expression on his face. Another man turned back against the flow of people, looking fearfully over his shoulder as he headed in the opposite direction at a brisk clip.
What is going on? she asked herself.
Shoukei headed in the same direction, craning her neck to see. She turned a corner. The people moving in that direction had unexpectedly multiplied. Before long, the surging tide of humanity made retreat impossible.
"You'd better stop."
The sudden sound of someone's voice calling out to her made Shoukei turn back, even as the human wave bore her along. From within the throngs, an old man turned to her and held up his hand.
"You'd better not go. You're gonna see something you don't want to."
"What?" she wanted to ask, searching her surroundings, but the river of people bore her along with them. Before she knew it, she had come to the main boulevard of the city.
It was the center of the city. More than a boulevard, it approximated a town square. The streets abruptly opened up into a plaza surrounded by crumbling walls. Soldiers were posted around its circumference. In the center were a number of people tied together.
The thing she didn't want to see.
The people paraded to the center of the plaza were secured with ropes around their waists. Eyeing the brawny men securing the rope, Shoukei could tell that something was about to happen. The thick wooden posts arranged on the ground only reaffirmed this conviction.
A crucifixion. Those people were going to be nailed to those stakes. There are places other than Hou where this punishment is exacted?
Rakushun had told her that there was no kingdom without a death penalty. But decapitation was the usual method. A particularly severe sentence might entail planting the severed head on a pike. More cruel methods of execution were no longer carried out anywhere else, or so the very knowledgeable hanjuu had told her.
"You don't want to see this."
Somebody pulled on her coat. When she turned around, it was a small, middle-aged man with a tired look on his face. "This isn't the place for a girl like you. You should leave."
"Why are they doing this?"
The man shook his head. "The worse thing you can do in Wa Province is fail to pay your taxes, or run away from a labor gang. It was one or the other for most of them there."
"But . . . crucifixion . . . . "
"I know, it's news to most travelers. Nobody wants to spread bad news, that's why. So they leave Wa Province hearing no evil, seeing no evil. Come here and it's another story."
Shoukei's voice was drowned out by a scream, intermingled with the sound of a stone mallet striking a nail. Without thinking, she turned and saw the writhing form of a man, one hand pinned to a wooden post.
"Stop . . . . "
Again, the heavy sound. Shoukei reflexively recoiled and shut her eyes. It used to happen all the time in Hou. None other than her own father had mercilessly sent so many people to the gallows.
In an instant, the memory and fear of almost being drawn and quartered shot through her thoughts. The vengeful voices and vitriolic cries of the townspeople as they dragged her into the square in front of the Rishi. The bitterness in Gobo's face as she raised the cane to flog her.
Another scream. Moans arose from the crowds surrounding the square. The rising clamor thankfully extinguished the sound of the falling mallet. Unable to bear it further, Shoukei took a step back. Her heel struck a stone and she almost lost her balance.
A stone the size of her fist. Similar stones were strewn across the plaza, probably from the crumbling walls.
The screams echoed against the walls.
Gobo's son had been executed for throwing a stone like this. How could taxes or forced labor matter so much? Such crimes were hardly commensurate with the extremities of pain that could reduce a big man to such wailing.
Shoukei grabbed the stone at her feet. Why wasn't anybody stopping this? What kind of people were these? Before her mind could sort it out, her arm had acted. She threw the stone over the wall of people. It flew with no great force, striking one of the soldiers pushing back the crowds. The stone fell to the black earth and rolled several paces.
The crowd fell deathly silent.
"Who threw that!" bellowed a commanding voice.
Shoukei stepped back from where she had been standing.
"Whoever threw that stone, present yourself!
The eyes of the people next to her fell on her. The distress showed in their faces, as to whether or not to finger her as the assailant.
"Drag her out here!"
Responding to the command, the wall of people in front of her broke apart. As Shoukei stepped back again, somebody grabbed her wrist. Shoukei jerked her arm like a whip and broke free. She spun on her heels and clawed her way through the throngs. Once again, that same somebody grabbed her again, hard, yanking her half off her feet.
Shoukei fell to her knees. She raised her eyes. It was a girl her same age. A moment later her eyes fell upon the long overcoat the girl was wearing and she thought, No, a young man.
"This way. Quickly."
The girl spoke forcefully. There was no time to think. She dragged Shoukei along, forcing her way through the crowds. After too many steps to count, crawling most of the time, she was again pulled to her feet. Plowing people out of the way, they finally cut through and saw daylight.
"Where are you! Show yourself!"
Glancing briefly in the direction of the angry voices behind them, the two of them bolted from the square.
Escaping the wave of humanity, Shoukei let herself be dragged along as she ran. They barreled through the countless maze-like streets, arriving at the outskirts of the city near the ramparts. Through a fissure in the wall, they tumbled out of the city.
"I leapt before I looked," Shoukei gasped. The girl at last let go of her arm. Shoukei took a good look at her, vivid eyes set against her scarlet hair. She was definitely a she. Shoukei said, "Thank you."
Behind them in the city, the angry voices rang out.
"I understand the feeling," the girl said. "I tend to act before I think, too."
"It's like I couldn't stop myself."
Tagging along behind the girl, Shoukei peered back over her shoulder. Hard as it was for her to believe, she wondered if she'd caused any unnecessary grief to the people around her. She wondered how the prisoners had fared. The girl looked at her, as if reading her mind. "I'm okay," Shoukei said in strangely confident voice and nodding for no particular reason.
At the same time, some distance off to the side, came a shrill shout. "There she is!"
Ten or more soldiers turned the far corner of the ramparts. Shoukei froze. The girl planted herself in front of her. "Go," she said. "Get out of here."
"Don't worry about me," she said, flashing a bold smile. She put her right hand to her waist and deftly drew out a sword.
Shoukei goggled at her. She didn't have time to ask, Do you know how to use that? The girl pushed her on her way. She hesitated and again looked back at the girl, who again told her forcefully to go.
"You'll be okay?"
"Don't sweat it."
Shoukei nodded. She'd be out in the open, cutting across the open countryside. So instead she followed along the weaving, undulating ramparts and soon disappeared from sight.
As she turned the last corner, she looked back and saw the red-haired girl, sword in hand, practically flying about the field. She was acting as a decoy. Shoukei spotted a soldier holding up his arm and pointing towards the girl. Most of soldiers went charging into the field.
Thank you, she said in her heart, and started running in earnest, looking for a place to crawl under. The wall here was too high to climb over. Maybe there was a hole in the wall somewhere.
She turned another corner when a voice above her said, "Hey!"
Thinking it was one of her pursuers, she ducked down. But then glancing up, she saw a man atop the parapets extending his hand down to her. Here the wall was low enough for him to reach her.
"Here, grab my hand."
Shoukei hesitated for a second, glanced behind her. She could hear the sound of footsteps approaching the corner of the wall she had just come around.
Shoukei grabbed the hand. The man was twenty-five or six. His strength belied his small size. He pulled Shoukei to the top of the wall with remarkable speed.
Three soldiers appeared from the corner of the ramparts. "Halt!" they called out.
She swallowed the pain from her practically dislocated shoulder, kicked her toes against the stone wall and crawled up to the wall walk. A soldier's hand reached for her foot and missed, clawing at her ankle. Her rescuer's hand still holding hers, she collapsed on the walkway.
She fell to her hands and knees, gasping for breath. Behind her, a soldier climbed onto the wall walk. The man almost casually delivered a kick that sent the soldier sprawling. The soldier roared with anger. The next soldier appeared, holding a spear over his head.
The man grabbed the business end of the spear as it was thrust toward him. A tug of war ensued, ending several second later with the soldier losing the battle and just as quickly finding the grip of the spear planted in his throat.
"Jump!" was the man's next command, as he whirled the spear like a knife through the air and positioned himself. The expression on his face was distant and dispassionate.
Shoukei nodded. It was a good twenty feet from the edge of the parapets to the road below. Sandwiched between the walls was an alleyway strewn with garbage. Hearing the yells and screams of the soldiers, Shoukei jumped, or rather, slid herself off the edge and down the wall. The shock of impact shot up through her legs. She collapsed on the ground.
She sat up, breathing hard. Above her, the man had seized a soldier by the collar and flung him off the far side of the wall. He threw the spear in the opposite direction, spun around and jumped down next to her.
Shoukei nodded despite herself. He grinned somewhat mischievously and peered up at the wall. "The other girl made a clean getaway. She a friend of yours?"
Shoukei shook her head. Her ragged breaths tore at her throat. She couldn't speak. The alleyway was empty, but at least she heard no one else approaching.
"Can you move?" the man asked.
Shoukei again shook her head. In a past few minutes, she had used up a day's worth of energy. She didn't think she could move another inch.
"That so?" he said with a generous smile. He turned around and crouched down. "Climb on." Shoukei sat there, confused. "C'mon," he said, "hurry it up."
Shoukei obediently clung to his back and the man stood up without faltering in the slightest. "For the time being, pretend you're asleep. I'll take you somewhere where we can rest."
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
13-3 A shadow approached the woods. "Your Highness," said Keiki, recognizing her in the cold and desolate twilight.
"Sorry about that," said Youko.
"What happened? The word was, you would be leaving the city sooner than later." Keiki pushed through the undergrowth as they climbed the slope. He abruptly stopped and grimaced. "You have a bad scent about you. I am not referring to you, personally."
"You can smell that? Sorry. I had Hankyo bear the victims away from the square."
Keiki sighed. Hankyo had come to the inn, said that he was to leave the city, and then guided him here. Keiki shrank back from the smell of blood. "So a youma appears in the city of Hokkaku."
He glanced at her and found that she was scowling at him. A wry smile came to her face. "I was helping out hurt people. Don't give me that look."
"Then I shall come to my conclusions after being informed of the details."
Youko sat down and again smiled a deeply ironic smile.
They had taken an inn in Hokkaku and stayed there for three days. There, too, Keiki noted the smell of death. With no other town nearby, they had to stay in Hokkaku. Youko strolled around the strange city. The hard toil of the citizenry built these wall, and all to suit the selfish needs of Gahou, province lord of Wa Province.
The better way would be to build the walls as big as possible, at the reach of the city limits, and then build the city small and let it grow over the years. Built it right and the people will come for protection from robbers and highwaymen. But Gahou built no bigger than he had to at any one time, and added the rest to the money he collected in tolls.
The city was densely populated, Gahou having shut most of the population out of Meikaku. The taxes were so steep in Meikaku that only the rich and mighty could afford to live there. People and commerce had been chased out, enlarging Hokkaku and Toukaku to an alarming degree. With travelers and their belongings, the streams of refugees, the cities were cramped. And all because of Gahou and his lousy walls. The peasants who lived in the countryside around Meikaku didn't even have time to farm.
"That's why at least four of them were being executed. They fled the forced labor gangs to get the crops in. They're the ones I had Hankyo help."
"Oh," Keiki muttered.
Youko laughed to herself. "A girl threw a stone at the executioner. I helped her escape, too, but the soldiers came after us. I guess my hair kind of stands out, huh? Getting back to Hokkaku looked difficult, so I had you brought here. Sorry for the trouble."
Keiki let out a breath. "I do wish Your Highness would act with more prudence."
"My bad." Youko propped her elbows on her knees. From the slope of the hill, Meikaku was visible in the distance. "I didn't know people in Kei were executed by crucifixion."
"They're crucified in Wa Province."
Keiki looked at her, speechless.
"There are lots of things like that going on in this kingdom that you and I know nothing about."
Like a tax of thirty percent even in the Dutchy of Yellow, inhuman methods of punishment, corrupt officials like Gahou and Shoukou. Two months after acceding to the throne, the Wizards of the Earth had presented themselves at court. Gahou had surely been among them, and Shoukou as well.
"They all fell at my feet and kowtowed, but that only served to hide their scorn. What a stupid empress, they must have all thought."
"I need civil servants I can trust."
Right now, in truth, she needed allies. It hadn't occurred to her when they were toppling the pretender. That's because she had En by her side--the personal support of the Royal En and six divisions of the En Imperial Army, commanded by impeccably disciplined staff officers and generals. Youko didn't have to order anybody around. After rescuing Keiki from the clutches of the pretender, the ministers and province lords who had conspired with her one by one were brought into line. It was clear to her now that they had fallen before the authority of the throne and the might of En.
"What kind of person is Enho?"
"Enho?" Keiki answered, with a puzzled expression. "He's a man who knows much about the way things work. He has taught a great many people."
"Maybe I should invite him to the Imperial Court."
Keiki said neither aye nor nay to that proposition. "When it comes to rousing the bureaucracy to action, rather than simply following their lead, Your Highness must make her own decisions. That is the first priority."
"That I intend to do."
Keiki sighed. "There are those at court who battle for power. In order to drag down an opposing faction, they will go so far as to fabricate crimes and make accusations."
Youko suddenly raised her head. "Who are we talking about?"
Keiki didn't answer.
"What are you hiding?"
"Nothing. If Your Highness cannot confirm it for herself, she is unlikely to believe it. That is all I have to say about the matter. I only ask that you think it over."
"You mean, Koukan?" The previous Marquis of Baku Province. She'd dismissed him, though Keiki had stubbornly remained opposed.
Keiki raised his eyebrows. "I was not referring to anyone in particular. If Koukan is the first name that springs to mind, then perhaps his fate is weighing on Your Highness's mind."
Youko took a soft breath. "Well, that's something I wouldn't expect a kirin like you to say."
"It is the stubbornness of my lord that drives me to such things."
Youko got to her feet, grinning. "We'd better hurry or the gates are going to close. Let's go."
Youko brushed off the dead grass and glanced again toward Meikaku. "I understand conditions in Meikaku. I like to go back to Kokei by means of Takuhou. You don't want to be away from Gyouten much longer, do you?"
Keiki nodded, looking up at her with a concerned expression. "And Your Highness?"
"Yeah, I know. I'll be back as soon as possible. But the one thing I have learned living in the real world is that I don't understand it at all."
Youko smiled at the scowling Keiki. "I'll return after I've learned everything inside and out. I can't believe I'm saying this myself, but I don't know when I'll return to Gyouten. That's how much I've figured out I didn't know."
"Indeed," said Keiki.
"I'm pretty sure I'll know for myself when enough is enough. I don't regret it. Coming down to the real world to live like this was absolutely necessary."
"So please wait until I've come to a conclusion. I don't think it will take that long."
Keiki didn't answer, but only bowed deeply.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
Part XIV (Chapter 52)
er rescuer came into the room. "How are you feeling?"
Shoukei smiled stiffly. "Nothing worse than a sprain. Thank you."
The man had carried her to a dilapidated house in Hokkaku. The first thing she'd noticed when they arrived was that she couldn't walk. She'd twisted her ankle either when she was scrambling up to the parapets or jumping down into the alleyway. She'd already observed it swelling up a bit.
Shoukei sat down with her leg propped up on a couch. The man pulled out a chair. "You're a brave young girl, but caution is the better part of valor. The girl who ran off into the countryside, do you know who she was?"
"I don't. She helped me get away and then just disappeared."
The man said absently to himself, "Her actions struck me as something more than simple kindness--more an extraordinary display of resolve."
Shoukei leaned forward. "I could say the same about you."
The man smiled broadly, a smile that bespoke the character of a good-natured individual. "Call me Kantai. I've settled here in Hokkaku. I'm a mercenary of sorts."
"A mercenary? You?" His laid-back attitude didn't match the merciless image of a soldier.
"I've got a good arm for it. You run into a lot of highwaymen around here. So I get hired to protect people and their stuff. You don't really need to be all that strong. There simply aren't that many men who really know how to handle a sword."
"And that's why you came to my rescue?"
Kantai gently smiled. "I know the feeling, wanting to clobber somebody with a rock like that."
"Oh." Shoukei felt the tension ease out of her shoulders. "I'm Shoukei."
"Shoukei-san. Did you have a place to stay tonight? The gates have closed already."
Shoukei shook her head.
"You can stay here if you'd like. I'm renting the place with a couple of my mercenary friends. They're admittedly an ill-bred lot, but they're not bad blokes."
"Thank you, but I hate to impose."
Kantai laughed. "Forget about it. After having to look at their sorry faces all day, a pretty girl like you is a breath of fresh air. Anyway, you'd have a tough time trying to find an inn after this."
Shoukei nodded. There was still the possibility that people were searching for her. "But what about yourself? I'd think they would remember your face as well."
This truly did bring a worried look to the man's face. "That's for damn sure. I'm going to have to lay off work for a while. Well, at any rate, food's not an issue, so I'm not too concerned."
"You've got nothing to be sorry about. It was my decision to rescue you, after all. I've got my own thoughts about the way they do things around here." Shoukei leaned closer and looked at him. Kantai smiled a bit awkwardly. "When you take seventy percent in taxes, not everybody's going to be able to pay."
"In Wa Province, seventy percent is the standard. In fact, the governor of Shisui is the only beast who collects seventy percent. So you're talking fifty to sixty percent on the outside. But nobody can live under that kind of tax burden. In Wa, everybody lives the life of a refugee."
The tax rate was normally ten percent. At the very worse, additional levies could increase it to thirty percent. At seventy percent, it's tough getting enough to eat, let alone living any kind of life.
"And if you don't pay, you end up like they did. On top of the taxes are the heavy demands placed on the work gangs, building walls, roads, bridges. Those walls are what you get when you throw people off their land and press them into hard labor."
"Why do they put up with it?"
"Because nobody wants to be crucified."
Kantai patted Shoukei on the shoulder. "Until things calm down, you can rest here. Take your time. " He smiled a bit bashfully. "But before you go, I could use a little help around the kitchen."
"Understood. Thanks for everything."
The house was about the same size as a rike. As private residences went, it was pretty big. The courtyard was surrounded by four halls, with the main gate in the southeast corner. Kantai seemed to be the landlord. He lived in the main wing, and as his guest, she was given the use of a room across the parlor from his room. Her room didn't have so much as a bed, but a divan instead.
Twenty men who looked a lot like soldiers were camped out in three of the rooms surrounding the courtyard. There were maybe two or three women, and they were all quite striking.
The next day, Shoukei found that she could at least walk, so she first decided to check out the kitchen instead of going to an inn. Even the pots on the stove had collected dust. The kitchen obviously had not been used in ages.
"Amazing," she said to herself.
"What is?" Kantai asked.
Shoukei literally jumped. "You surprised me."
"Sorry. How are you doing? Can you walk?"
"It doesn't hurt that much. Does anybody actually use this kitchen?"
Kantai smiled. "Most everybody here eats out. To tell the truth, I'd be happy just to be able to brew a cup of tea. But you can see the state things are in."
"Well, then let's get to the point where we can brew a cup of tea."
"Anything I can do to help?"
She looked up at him and was about to say it'd probably be easier for her to do it by herself, when he smiled sheepishly. "Naw. I know I'd better stick to the cleaning up. I'm all thumbs when it comes to stuff like this."
"You don't say. So, I take it you were brought up in nice digs."
Men and women became independent at the age of twenty, and were at least capable of doing what they observed going on around them. Those who could not were betraying their reliance on servants, of being brought up in luxurious surroundings, of having somebody to watch over them.
"Yeah, something like that."
"Well, I'll wash the pots. You run the water."
"That I shall do."
His overly formal answer struck her as a bit odd. The two of them carried the assortment of pots outside, to the rear of the kitchen. There was a bucket next to the well. The dipper in the bucket suggested that whenever anybody wanted a drink they just came out here and helped themselves.
"It really is every man for himself here."
"They're not the type who give such matters a second thought."
"When was the last time this bucket was cleaned? Unbelievable."
"You think so?"
"No matter. Are you a citizen of Kei, Kantai?"
"Yes. And you?"
"I was born in Hou."
"So you've come a long way to end up here."
Shoukei filled the bucket to overflowing. She washed her hands and smiled. "Yes, I did. I've come a long way. I never thought I'd ever end up in a kingdom where it didn't snow in the winter."
"Huh," said Kantai, as he lowered the bucket into the well.
"I didn't think there were any other kingdoms besides Hou that did something as cruel as crucifixion."
"Yeah," said Kantai, hauling up the bucket. "But Wa Province is unique. The province lord doesn't bother enforcing the rule of law."
"That's not true of all of Kei, is it?"
"Well, I don't know about all of Kei. I suspect only Gahou could make such a mess of things as this."
"Gahou? The Marquis of Wa?"
"Yes. Two beasts rule in Wa. The province lord, Gahou, and the governor of Shisui Prefecture, Shoukou."
"Shisui Prefecture. I was thinking of going there."
He asked with such doubtful expression that Shoukei shrugged her shoulders when she said, "If you go to Shisui, you'll get land and registered on the census. They're bringing in refugees from Tai. You don't know about that?"
Kantai shook his head. "I don't. It's the first I've heard of it. I do see wagons carrying people passing through Meikaku, headed for Shisui."
"You know, that's probably why. When I get to Shisui, I figure there will at least be a job waiting for me."
"I'd stop thinking things like that, if I was you."
"I told you. Beasts prowl the land in Wa, and Shoukou leads the pack."
"But he'd at least want to help the refugees--"
"Shoukou isn't the kind of person who would ever help anybody. If you go there, I guarantee that you'll regret it."
A look of firm resolution came to his face. "The reason they're bringing people to Shisui is because they're losing people. There's only so much land. No matter how wealthy, a prefecture can't keep bringing in refugees. The only reason they can is because the people who came before them are dead."
"Oh." Shoukei bit her lip. "So that's what it's about." She'd walked into this one with her eyes wide open, and had blindly thrown encouraging words around as well. If any among those she'd met before ended up going to Shisui, she'd have to apologize to them.
"I wonder what the Royal Kei is doing?" Why does she leave such monsters in positions of power? Wasn't Kei supposed to be entering a new era?
"Our Empress is no good," Kantai sighed.
Shoukei gave him a hard look. "No good?"
"They say the ministers at the Imperial Court lead her around by the nose. That's what happened to our last empress. She didn't care what happened to the kingdom. So she didn't care who governed us."
"Then why doesn't anybody tell that to the Empress?"
"Tell the Empress?" Kantai said, his eyes wide with surprise.
"If you're right, then she's got to be told the truth! Otherwise, they'll turn her into a puppet. Somebody's got to make her see the light!"
"If the Royal Kei doesn't know what state the kingdom is in, it's going to come back to hurt her. Ignorance will be no excuse. Her own weakness won't be an excuse. Somebody has to tell her!" So she wouldn't meet the same fate as herself. So she wouldn't meet the same fate as her father.
Kantai blinked. "Aren't you from Hou?"
Shoukei came back to her senses and reddened a bit. "Yes . . . but . . . it's like the Royal Kei isn't a stranger to me. I heard she was the same age as me." She looked down. "Somebody has to tell her! If she doesn't find out, who knows what will happen to the throne?"
"How would you go about telling her? She lives in the heart of Kinpa Palace in Gyouten."
"Rather, spark a flame here in Wa Province, and she's bound to notice."
Shoukei raised her head and looked carefully into Kantai's gentle and smiling face.
"Light fires throughout all the provinces," he continued, "and she'll notice the embers burning at her feet. Don't you think?"
"I don't know."
This man had saved her life. He'd fought the soldiers chasing her and had given her shelter. Now he was a marked man as well. Why would he go so far? Because he'd been on the run from the beginning. Or he believed he was being pursued. At any rate, this man was preparing to raise the flag of rebellion against the province lord of Wa.
"I don't know, but I do know that something must be done. The state of things here cannot go on. Somehow or other, we've got to make the Royal Kei aware of conditions here."
Kantai laughed without a touch of cynicism or reproach. "I think so, too. Well, let's straighten things up here. Now, you don't have anyplace to go, right? So why not stick around a while longer?"
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love