14-2 Suzu helped out doing odd jobs around the inn. On occasion, she transported goods on her sansui and delivered messages back and forth.
The sansui already disliked being ridden by anybody else but her. Koshou tried mounting up once, but got bucked off and very nearly walloped by a pair of hind legs capable of vaulting the walls of the city. Breaking a you-beast demanded the guts to go toe-to-toe (or hoof) with one, and fully training a pegasus required at least a decade. Its pride must be marshalled first. And only that tamed part of a pegasus would demonstrate a significant diminution of its assertiveness.
"When you get a bit better at mastering this beast . . . " said Koshou, gazing wistfully at the sansui.
"Me?" Gathering greens from the garden, Suzu stopped and looked over her shoulder at Koshou, who was sitting at the side of the well.
"A pegasus that's been really well trained will follow the orders its master gives it. The sooner you can become that kind of master, the sooner it will do what you tell it. Like, 'Let Koshou ride you.'"
"Well, I'll keep at it and see. It takes time."
"Sure does. When you've got a pegasus, riding a horse pales in comparison."
"Would you like a pegasus, too, Koshou?"
"Not that I could ever afford one. Talk is cheaper. Even if I became a soldier."
"Don't soldiers get pegasi?"
"Only if you rise really high in the ranks. And that depends on luck, but more on having the kind of connections that I don't have."
"To get promoted, you need a good sword arm, sure, but you have to go to secondary school, too. The commanders of the Imperial Army all graduated from college, don't you know. On top of that, you've got to get commendations. Right now, the only way to get commendations is working for people like Shoukou and beating the crap out of farmers. That's not the kind of soldiering I care to do."
"But it'd be nice if I could follow through on something like that."
Koshou tore his eyes away from the sansui and laughed bitterly. "When you're a soldier, you don't need to go to school, and it doesn't matter where you came from. If I could become a soldier somewhere, I could send Sekki away from Wa Province. He's got a good head on his shoulders, so I want to do what I can to make sure he succeeds in life. I want to take him away from here, but until he turns twenty, I got to find work somewhere. Even if I'm looking for a wife, he's coming along, too."
Koshou and Sekki didn't have parents. They'd been in the care of the orphanage until Koshou turned twenty. When he got his independence, Koshou took custody of Sekki. Unfortunately, Koshou had been born in Takuhou, and there was a surplus of land in Takuhou. Not because the amount of land was growing but because the population was shrinking due to the constant turmoil. Many farmers abandoned the land. The unluckier ones stayed and died.
Sekki was registered on the Takuhou census as well, so it was pretty much assured that when he turned twenty, he would get a partition in Takuhou. Even if he wanted to sell out and buy a shop in the city, land elsewhere was more valuable. Those landowners would have the upper hand when it came to making advantageous deals for themselves.
"If he hung in there and attended a local secondary school, it'd have to be a school in Wa. If Sekki demonstrated promise, he could go to university or at least the provincial academy and become a civil servant. But he'd still be stuck in Wa. Even if I found myself a wife and transferred my partition, Sekki couldn't come with me. That's how things stand now. To do right by Sekki, I'd have to become a soldier in another province, and Sekki would have to find a wife there as well . . . . "
With that, Koshou clapped his hands. "Well, Suzu, how are things going?"
"Oh, stop it." Suzu playfully hit Koshou with the basket she was gathering the greens with. "That kind of thinking isn't like you at all. Wouldn't it be better to make Wa Province a nice place to live by the time Sekki turns twenty?"
Koshou grinned. "That's for sure."
Sekki piped up, "Rather than what worries others, what about what worries me?"
At the sound of his voice, Suzu and Koshou started and turned to the main wing of the inn.
"For example, even if we went to another province, I wouldn't stop worrying about my big brother. Being short tempered and liable to fly off at the handle and all."
Sekki ignored the glare Koshou directed at him and smiled at Suzu. "It's just about lunchtime."
Most of the guests staying at the inn had some reason for being there, so the lion's share of the income was earned at mealtimes. The old man who stood guard in the kitchen was not without talent, and kept the tavern neat and trim. As a consequence, it had gained some small fame in this forlorn corner of the city. The clientele, though, was anything but "high class."
Because alcohol was served, bar fights were the norm. If Koshou wasn't there, things tended to get out of control. "Business has really picked up, thanks to you, Suzu," Sekki laughed as they prepared the noonday meal.
"Don't be silly."
"A girl is a strange sight around here. Many have returned, but women are still scarce in Kei. It's because the last empress had them all expelled."
"And because they were glad to get away from a dump like this, they're not eager to return. Those who know a craft or have some sort of ability aren't coming back. It's going to take some time."
After lunch, the only hangers-on were the same men who always hung out in the tavern. There definitely was not a woman in sight. Not a one. It was very odd.
And then she came into the tavern.
Suzu was wiping down the tables and stopped what she was doing. The girl wore a shabby-looking overcoat that made her look like a boy. But having met her before, Suzu knew at once she was a girl.
"It's you . . . . "
And that unforgettable crimson hair.
The girl's gaze fell upon her and her eyes widened. "You must be Suzu."
"Yes," Suzu nodded. "Thank you, for before."
The girl had tended to Seishuu when he was run over and killed. Since then, Suzu hadn't had the chance to express her gratitude.
"No need to thank me," the girl said, shaking her head.
Suzu pulled out a chair for her. "Please, have a seat. Do you want something to eat? I'll bring some tea."
Suzu hurried into the kitchen. When she rushed in, Sekki came to his feet. "Suzu, do you know her?"
"I don't really know her. We met once before."
"Oh," said Sekki, a dark expression briefly clouding his face.
"What's going on?"
"Nothing. Go on and serve her. Until the regular crowd comes in, I'll straighten up here."
"Well, don't let me stop you," Suzu laughed. She filled a teacup and hastened back to the dining hall.
The girl was also examining the tavern with a similarly grim expression.
"Here you go." She placed the teacup down on the table.
The girl bowed slightly. "It's only you, today, Suzu? The last time I came here, a tall man and a boy of fifteen or so were here."
"You mean, Koshou and Sekki? Koshou is out on an errand. Sekki's in the kitchen. Did you come to see them?"
"No, not necessarily."
"My name is Suzu Ooki."
"Suzu Ooki," the girl repeated. Her name seemed to surprise her.
"Thank you for helping out on that day. I don't like to admit it, but I'm grateful for what you told me about Seishuu."
"Seishuu? He's buried in a cemetery outside Takuhou. He was originally a child of Kei. When Kei fell into chaos, he fled to Kou. When the new empress was chosen, he decided to come back, but then was killed. He's buried in Takuhou, but cannot rest in peace."
"I see," the girl said, with a bitter countenance.
"I met Seishuu in Sou. We sailed to Kei together. There were a lot of people from Kei on the boat. They all expected that things were going to get better, now that there was a new empress. But so far, things have been disappointing. Having a new empress doesn't change anything. The marquis and the governor haven't changed." Suzu asked, "And you are?"
"Youshi," she replied. "I live in Kokei."
"Kokei. Ah, in Hokui. Next door in Ei Province. Is Ei a nice place?"
"More or less," she mumbled.
"I wonder if Kei is pretty much the same everywhere. But it's got to be better than Takuhou."
Youshi didn't answer.
"Life can be tough no matter where you live. But I do think some kingdoms are better off than others. I know there are places like that. I came from Sai. The Empress of Sai is a good person. Kingdoms not blessed with good rulers are pretty pitiful."
"Yeah," Youshi nodded.
"I have to wonder what the Royal Kei is doing, you know? Maybe she doesn't even understand the state her kingdom is in."
"She's a puppet," Youshi abruptly blurted out.
Suzu leaned forward. "Eh?"
"She's not terribly competent. Since she isn't trusted by the ministers, there's not much she can do. And not much she can get them to do. So her best recourse is to shut up and do as she's told."
"Really? You seem to know a lot about Gyouten, Youshi."
Youshi shook her head. "Just rumors."
"Rumors, huh. Just like the previous empress, those in government are left to their own devices, and she remains deaf to the cries of the people. That's why she banished the Marquis of Baku."
"What?" Youshi said.
Suzu furrowed her brows. "Even though the Marquis of Baku is a really good person, the Royal Kei still forced him out of office. He was loved by the people of Baku. But at the same time, she gives the Marquis of Wa a pass. It really is astonishing."
"Yes it is." Youshi stood up. "Sorry, but I won't be staying for dinner."
"Oh. Was it something I said?"
"No. I was passing by, and decided to drop in and see how things were going. I wasn't that hungry to start with."
"Will you come again?"
Youshi smiled thinly and nodded.
After Suzu saw her off, she tilted her head to one side and put down her cup. She noticed that Youshi hadn't even touched her tea. She said to herself, "I wonder if she got fed up with all the chit-chat."
There really weren't that many women in Kei. It was even rarer for her to meet a girl her same age. She had the feeling she carried on a bit more than usual.
Puzzling over this, she went to the kitchen and found Sekki and Koshou loitering in the doorway.
"Oh, you're back."
"Suzu, who was that girl?" Koshou asked, a grave expression on his face.
Suzu answered with a shake of her head. "Somebody I met before. She said she lives in Hokui."
Sekki looked up at Koshou and said, "Rou's house, remember?"
Koshou nodded. Again with a fierce look, he grasped her arm. "What did you talk about?"
"Nothing in particular."
They hadn't talked about anything unusual, that was for sure. Her complaints were no more severe than what people in Takuhou said instead of the usual hellos and goodbyes.
"She didn't have anything to say?"
"Not especially. Ah, she did talk about the Empress in Gyouten."
"Did she strike you as well informed about Gyouten?"
"I don't know, but . . . she said it was all rumors, though she seemed pretty knowledgeable of the place."
Koshou glanced at Sekki. Sekki nodded. "We'd better move, then."
"Eh?" said Suzu, turning to Sekki.
"She was here before. It was like she was looking for something. If she has a detailed knowledge of Gyouten, then she probably is from Gyouten."
"And that means . . . ?"
"There are rumors intimating that Shoukou and Gahou have a free rein because they've got the Royal Kei watching their backs. If somebody was sent from Gyouten to check out the situation here, then those rumors may be true."
Sekki nodded at the surprised Suzu. "Get your things together. Better safe than sorry. We'll leave here and move in with some friends of ours."
"But . . . . "
"That girl was no ordinary person."
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
14-3 To Rangyoku, it was a day like any other, save the fact that Youshi had been gone now for ten days.
"When's Youshi coming back?" Keikei asked in a bored voice.
Rangyoku smiled. Keikei was lonely. Since the other children at the orphanage had died, he really did have a lot of time on his hands.
"Is Youshi gonna get married?"
"You mean, move in with that guy she went to see? Who knows."
Youshi couldn't get married until she had legally come of age, but common law marriage was not prohibited. If she had parents, they would have to approve, but Youshi didn't have any parents.
"Even supposing she did, she couldn't move away until she turned twenty."
As she explained this, Rangyoku found herself strangely doubting that what Keikei had proposed was true. Though Youshi was supposedly an orphan, Enho treated her more like a guest. And being a guest, she would be leaving before long.
Rangyoku had Keikei help her clean the dishes and wipe off the shelves. After straightening up the kitchen, she glanced over her shoulder at Keikei and said, "Good work. It's about time for tea. Why don't you call Enho?"
"Okay," Keikei said with a big bow, and ran off toward the study.
Rangyoku watched as he scampered into the main hall, smiling. She was proud of her little brother. He was smart and kind, a hard worker. Everybody who met him said so. Even Enho said that after elementary school, he'd recommend Keikei to the prefectural academy.
Pleased with herself, Rangyoku laughed as she arranged the utensils. She heard the door to the main wing opening.
"Enho, would you like some tea?"
No one answered. Rangyoku looked up and glanced toward the doorway. She froze. Several men stood there, men she had never seen before.
There were six of them. At a glance, they seemed like ordinary men, but there was an air of danger about them. Unconsciously, Rangyoku took a step back.
One of the men shut the door and stood in front of it, blocking the way.
"Who are you? What are you doing--?"
Her inquiry cut off mid-sentence. A man produced a dagger from inside his jacket. Rangyoku screamed and spun around. Heavy footsteps pounded after her. Her arms were pinned from behind.
"What are you--"
A hand covered her mouth. The man holding her nodded to the others. The men positioned themselves next to the door.
What is going on? Who are these men?
The light footsteps padded down the hallway. It was Keikei. Rangyoku's eyes opened wide. The door started to open. In the same instant, she twisted free with all her might and screamed, "Keikei! Run!"
Her feet were scooped out from under her and she crashed to the floor. She lifted her head and looked at the doorway. Her small sibling stood there petrified.
"Run! Keikei, Run!"
With startled eyes, Keikei turned to run, but the men closed on him faster. One effortlessly dragged Keikei toward him and struck him with his fist. No, not a fist, he was holding a knife in his hand.
"What's this!" came Enho's voice, and the sound of his feet.
At the same time, her eyes fell on Keikei body, like he had just decided to sit down. Right above his belt, the handle of the knife.
Something struck her hard in the back. Rangyoku screamed and curled into a ball. At the same time came a shooting pain and she screamed again.
She raised her head and saw Keikei kneeling there, his head almost touching the floor, and Enho running up behind him.
Before Enho reached Keikei, the men rushed at him and grabbed his arms. Enho shook himself free, knelt and picked up Keikei's body. With remarkable strength, he clasped Keikei against his chest, cast her a glance that spoke volumes, and headed toward the courtyard.
"Enho . . . run . . . . "
A man blocked his way. With Keikei still in his arms, Enho turned and ran in the direction of the study, the men in pursuit.
Why? Why is this happening?
Rangyoku planted her hands and got to her feet. Swaying, she turned toward the doorway.
She heard the sounds of running, the pounding of footsteps from deep within the rike. She dug her fingernails into the walls and staggered down the corridor, gripping the handrail. Should she rush outside to get help? She hesitated, then continued on down the hallway, clinging to the railing.
She ran with a lurching jog, ignoring the burning pain in her back. She came to the walk between the guest room and the study and found Keikei and Enho lying there on the floor.
"Rangyoku, get away from here!"
"But!" She looked down at her brother crumpled on the floor. The small pool of blood was growing. Keikei didn't move, not for her cries, not for her tears.
This can't be happening.
She came back to her senses. The men rushed at them, weapons in hand. Instinctively, she turned and ran sluggishly down the corridor. A blade struck her in the back, the impact driving her to her knees. She rolled to the floor, picked herself up, ran on. The weapons slashed at her feet, slammed against the back of her neck. She stumbled into the closest doorway.
It was the guest room. Her eyes fell on the door to the bedroom. She reached out and crawled toward it.
As Rangyoku opened the door and plunged inside, she felt another sharp shock of pain in her back. Ah, she sighed. Something warm flowed down from the back of her neck and across her chest. She grabbed hold of a shelf and collapsed, unable to support herself. A small box tumbled off the shelf and fell open next to her.
It's Youshi's, she thought listlessly. What a strange girl. Now there'll be nobody at the rike at all. Enho will be lonely.
She'd left him behind. What would become of him now?
What did we ever do to them?
The sight of her brother lying in a pool of blood pained her far more than her own blood gathering around her. He was still so small. Such a good kid. The only person left in her family. When their parents had died, they had joined hands and gone on living together.
What a sad kingdom this was. Being born in Kei was such a pitiful fate. Kei had killed their parents, had tried to banish her, and in the end even pursued them to this orphanage, where at last they had made a peaceful life for themselves. Kei was in such chaos that hoodlums and thieves had a free rein.
Youshi, Rangyoku thought, unconsciously tightening her grip on the small square of cloth in the palm of her hand. Strike down Keikei's killers. Show them no mercy.
There was a hard object in the cloth. Dazed, she stared at her hand and saw gold glimmering between her fingers.
A golden seal with an engraved face.
What's it doing here?
Heavy footsteps approached. Rangyoku tightened her grip around it, to hide it from the assassins. A second, a third sharp pain pierced her back.
The Imperial Seal of the Royal Kei.
Tears welled up in her eyes.
Help us, Youshi. Please. The way you saved us from the Kyuuki.
Save us, and save the people of Kei.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
14-4 "You may leave."
Keiki spoke softly to his shirei. The two youma wordlessly vanished. Kokei and Hokui were visible not too far off in the distance. As usual, they had alighted in a forest a safe remove from the highway.
Keiki's lord stood next to him, sullen and silent. What kind of person is the Marquis of Baku? she had asked.
Something happened in Takuhou. He did not know what she'd heard there, but when she came to where he was waiting outside the city, that was the question she'd posed to him. Keiki hadn't entered the city. The smell of death was too overwhelming.
Youko had returned in something of a rage. He hadn't inquired of the shirei who'd accompanied her as to the specifics of the situation. He had no idea why Her Highness asked such a question with such vehemence, and she wouldn't reveal her real intentions.
"Your Highness has been fully informed, has she not?"
"I haven't. That's why I asked."
"You dismissed Koukan knowing nothing of his temperament?"
Youko had no ready answer.
"I recommended to Your Highness that she act only after making a thorough investigation, that she not rely solely on the word of her ministers. And yet, at this juncture, you pose such a question to me?"
"And investigations were done. Koukan refused to cooperate with the pretender because he had designs on the throne. He envied me and tried to assassinate me. The plot was revealed and he fled."
"Yes, that is how things stand."
"But now I hear that Koukan is beloved by the people of Baku."
"And I have heard such things as well."
"Then why wasn't I told!"
"I shall look into the matter. However, had I deigned to defend Koukan, would Your Highness have listened to me?"
Youko again was at a loss for words.
"In terms of protecting Koukan, I asked on many occasions that Your Highness reconsider his dismissal. Did you not value the words of the ministers over my advice? I said I did not think Koukan was the man being so described. Why ask me at this late date, having already dismissed him?"
"What do you think of him?"
"He struck me as a capable man, though I have only met him twice. That was the impression he left upon me."
"Shall I take that to mean you have amended your opinion of him? Among others, you have the words of the ministers, the testimony of the witnesses, and my own advice. Did you not consider all points of view?"
"Enough already," she spat.
Traveling from Takuhou to Kokei, she didn't say another word. And now she stared sullenly at Kokei.
"Your Highness, the gates are closing."
"I know," she growled.
"Is Your Highness upset with me?"
She was standing with her back to him. "No." She shook her head. "I'm just pissed at myself."
Keiki sighed. His words were not sufficient. It was not that he was sparing with his words, but that they were never appropriate to the moment. Only afterwards would he realize their insufficiency.
"I do apologize."
"It's not your fault." She glanced back at him, a confused smile rising to her face. "Sorry for losing my temper. You know me, flying off at the handle at all."
"I should have said more."
"Naw. I wouldn't have listened. Sorry about all that. Let's go."
The expression on his lord's face urged him on, and briefly Keiki found himself smiling. The resolute heart of a forgiving lord gave him much cause to rejoice. But at the same time, his thoughts were tinged with longing and regret.
No, said that youthful and dearly-missed voice. I won't jump to conclusions. Better to ask you directly. Keiki stared at the darkening indigo heavens. That kingdom over yonder skies.
Youko thought as they walked back to Kokei, I am so incomplete in so many ways. And not trusting Keiki was first on the list.
"You heading back?" she asked as they passed through the gate.
Keiki looked up at the sky. "I believe there is enough time to say hello to Enho. I will return afterwards."
"That's the kind of guy Enho is, huh?"
"Indeed he is." A worried look flashed across his face. "He was originally from Baku. A man well versed in the Way, in logic and in reason. To tell the truth, I received a request from the Marquis. There were those who envied Enho's popularity and the great regard in which he was held, and wished him harm. Consequently, I received a communique from the Marquis requesting that he be transferred to Ei Province."
"From Koukan. I see."
And fearing that Youko nursed a grudge against him, Keiki had not revealed this to her. Considering all this, she laughed in self-derision. I really do have some ways to go.
Turning these thoughts on her mind, she turned the corner adjacent the rike and continued on several paces when Keiki suddenly stopped in his tracks.
"What is it?"
"I smell . . . blood," he said, his forehead deeply furrowing.
Youko examined their surroundings. It was a town in winter and the streets were deserted.
"You're kidding." She felt a thump in her heart and took off running. She ran through the gate into the rike, sprinted into the main hall and froze.
Drops of blood dotted the floor.
The living room was empty. She felt no other presence in the rike.
The trail of blood continued on down the hallway.
She ran toward the back of the rike. At her feet, a youma appeared, saying, "The enemy is not here." She acknowledged the voice and kept running. Turning a corner, she found Keikei, collapsed in the corridor.
Youko raced up to him and fell to her knees. A knife was buried deeply in the small body. When she touched him, there seemed to be no energy left in his body at all.
"Do not try to move him." Youko looked back at Keiki's grimacing face. "There is still breath in him. Hyouki, take the child to Kinpa Palace."
"We won't make it in time," the low voice said.
But Keiki nodded and said anyway, "If the occasion requires it, I shall carry him and go on ahead."
"By your command," came the gruff answer.
The red panther materialized beneath Keikei's body and hoisted the child onto its back. At the same time, a woman with white feathered arms appeared and bore him up.
Youko said, "Hyouki, Kaiko, please do this for me."
She looked around. The blood continued on into the guest quarters. Following the trail, she arrived at her own room. The floor was smeared with blood and gore. In the face of the horror, Keiki faltered and could not proceed.
"Keiki, don't push yourself. Get out of here."
"Look after Keikei for me. Get him to a doctor. There's not a moment to lose."
Heedlessly, Youko entered the living room. She noticed that the door to the bedroom was open and headed toward it. Inside was the body of a girl.
Youko ran up to her, put her hand on her shoulder, and immediately withdrew it. She covered her face with her hands. "Why?"
Rangyoku was dead.
Youko couldn't begin to imagine who could hate Keikei and Rangyoku enough to kill them. Rangyoku's back was covered with countless wounds. She could not begin to grasp a reason for such brutality.
"Why did this happen?" She tore at her hair and then suddenly lifted her head. "Enho?"
"He is not here," said Hankyo.
"Nowhere in the rike. I have searched every nook and cranny. Neither Enho nor his corpse."
"How do you know?"
"I smell three different bloods. He would seem to have been wounded. I conclude he was kidnaped."
Youko bit her lip. Several nights before, a number of men had surrounded the rike. Perhaps men who had come to see Enho, men with dark faces. Perhaps men from Takuhou. It wouldn't necessarily have changed anything if she had been able to connect the dots, but it grieved her that she hadn't been able to protect them.
"Rangyoku, I'm sorry," she said, stroking her back.
Youko straightened Rangyoku's tangled hair. Her hands were clasped together beneath her body. It struck Youko as such a piteous posture that she pulled her arms out from under her. Her right hand was tightly curled into a fist. From the shape of her fist, it was obvious she was holding onto something. Youko took hold of the still warm hand and gently pried open the fingers. The golden seal tumbled out.
Youko looked at the seal and at Rangyoku with wide eyes. In the end, had she grasped what it meant? She wouldn't have had time check the impression on the seal. Even if she had, with her wounds, and the fact that the impression was the mirror-image of the characters themselves, would have made reading it difficult, if not impossible.
As Youko pondered this, she also considered the significance of how Rangyoku had hidden it, beneath her body, trying to keep it from being discovered. And the only people she could be hiding it from could have been the killers. But why had she hidden it? Because it belonged to Youko, because it was made out of gold. Or both.
"Rangyoku . . . thank you." She didn't want to cry, but couldn't hold back the tears. "I am so sorry."
If she hadn't left the rike, she could have protected them.
"Hankyo, where is Keiki?"
"Returning to the palace."
Youko nodded. At the very least, Keikei alone must survive. If he did not, mere condolences would hardly be enough.
A child also died in Takuhou.
Biting her lip, Youko looked down at Rangyoku. She bowed her head to the floor. "This sorry excuse for an empress truly begs your forgiveness."
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
Part XV (Chapter 56)
moonless night. The wind roared. Not a light was on in the rike. Youko sat listlessly in the empty main hall. Keiki had transformed into a unicorn and was bearing Keikei to the palace. Keikei was still alive. But whether or not he could be saved depended on the doctors.
Hyouki said, "The Taiho is not well."
"What happened here?" the town manager had asked, when he saw Rangyoku's body. He covered his face with his hands. "And Keikei and Enho?"
"They're not here," was Youko's only reply.
What would she do if he died? And if he lived, how would she explain his sister's death? And Enho's absence?
The elders didn't have to say, "You should have been here." She knew that well enough herself. If she'd been here, three people would not have met such terrible fates.
She said to Hyouki, "Please tell Keiki I'm thankful for all he's done. Take all due care with Keikei."
"By your command. What shall be your next move?"
"I'm going to look for Enho."
"I do have some idea about what I'm doing. No matter what, I will find Enho and apprehend the brigands who did this."
"The Taiho will worry."
"Tell Keiki he can rest assured I won't do anything reckless, but I just can't sit around here twiddling my thumbs."
"That is what I shall communicate to him."
"Thanks. I appreciate it."
Hyouki's voice ceased. In the dead calm, the sound of wind filled the main hall. There was no one here to light the fires. The girl who worked so diligently keeping the coals stoked and the warm steam rising from the stove, she was not here. She would never return again.
Youko picked up the sword she had cast onto a nearby chair. The Suiguu-tou, the Water Monkey Sword, Imperial Regalia of the Kingdom of Kei.
The great power of a youma's soul was sealed into its blade and scabbard. If she could master it well, the sword would show her the past, the present, and the future, and that which was far from her. The sword could also read the human heart.
Youko drew out the sword far enough to expose the blade and stared at the gleaming steel. This sword had, in fact, been smelted from water, and changed its shape according to the lord who possessed it. The Royal Tatsu created the Suiguu-tou. At first, the sword had no scabbard, and resembled a long-handled scimitar. The Royal Tatsu christened it the Suikan-tou, or the Water Smelted Sword. Knowing of its powers to befuddle its lord, the Royal Tatsu later fashioned a scabbard to bind it. Since naming it the Suiguu-tou, its shape had changed with each new monarch. Now it rested in her hands as a plain sword.
Even as an axe, or a stave, the scabbard must attend to that shape. Without the scabbard, it had the mysterious power to turn on its owner. Yet Youko had lost the original scabbard, leaving only its dead shell behind. The scabbard in its current form had already proved incapable of sealing the sword's power.
I should probably call it the Water Smelted Sword from now on.
Although the Winter Ministry had created a new scabbard for the sword, it had done little to check its power. Far from it, when removed from the binding force of the scabbard, the sword ran wild, tormenting her day after day. Even now, Youko could not control the sword, experiencing nothing but cryptic visions and nightmares.
The ministers all silently reproved Youko for losing the precious scabbard, a crown jewel without peer in the known world.
Youko stared at the blade. Finally, she sighed. "It's no good." She could see no sign of Enho anywhere in the visions that emerged from the sword. "Hankyo," she said.
"Yes," he answered from the darkness.
"I'm going to sleep for a while. Please wake me up before the gates open. I want to set out for Takuhou first thing in the morning."
"By your command," the voice alone replied.
Early in the morning, Youko entered Hokui and went straight to the residence of the man named Rou. The strange, shrouded man had led her to Rou. At his place, she'd also observed the big man she'd seen at the inn in Takuhou. The men who had some time ago surrounded the rike were also from Takuhou. Youko had to believe they were all involved one way or another.
Trudging through the fierce winter air, she finally arrived at Rou's residence, and after wandering about for a while, knocked on the front gate. The inside of the residence was deathly silent. She was pounding more determinedly on the door, when an old man passed by in the street.
"What with all this noise at this hour? Rou's not here."
Youko glanced back over her shoulder at the melancholy face of the old man. "Not here?"
"Plum disappeared. Probably took off in the middle of the night. Don't know what's going on, but what with all those shady character coming and going, I'm sure something was afoot."
"When was that?"
"It's been a while, now. Say, about a half a month ago."
Half a month ago had been when Youko first came here. "Would you happen to know any of these men who were coming and going? I'd like to know where he went."
"Hard to tell. At any rate, every last one of them looked to be up to no good." Then something came to him. "There was this creepy-looking fellow who came by now and then. Rode a real fine horse. Looked like a man trying hard not to be seen."
"He wore a shroud over his face?"
"Yeah, that's one way to describe it. A man about forty, I'd say."
"About forty." Youko couldn't think of anybody meeting that description.
"So, was this Rou up to something?"
"Not that I know of."
"Hmph," the old man snorted. "Sure seemed to me he was up to something. He wasn't from around these parts to begin with."
"He wasn't originally from Hokui?"
"Not hardly. Fall of last year, he showed up and settled down here with hardly a 'Hello' 'How do you do' to anybody in the neighborhood. Best not to get involved with that sort. Definitely not good people."
"I see." Youko thanked him with a nod of her head.
She left Hokui and called Hankyo. He was among the fleetest footed of all the pegasi. Traveling by means of the tonkou, he could get there all the faster, but Hankyo couldn't carry her through the earth with him. She had to ride.
From a discreet place along the highway, she mounted up and in a flash had arrived at Takuhou. She dismounted near Takuhou, passed through the gate and headed to the inn she'd already visited twice already. There had to be connection there.
The men who'd been spying on the rike had returned to Takuhou. The first time she'd come here, the men at the inn had struck her as a dangerous and formidable sort. She couldn't risk trusting them. As for the shrouded man and the man named Rou, she was already out of leads. The man at the inn, who'd been to Rou's place in Hokui, she had no choice but to doubt him as well.
She ran down the alleyway, heavy with stagnant air, and stopped in her tracks. The inn was there as she remembered it. She approached the entranceway and put her hand on the door.
Curiously, the door didn't move. The windows facing the thoroughfare were tightly shuttered. She knocked lightly on the door. Just as at Rou's place, there was no answer.
What is going on?
She hit the door with her fist, then turned and hurried over the house facing the inn and pounded on the locked doors. "Who's that?" came the immediate answer. A man in his fifties poked out his head.
"Excuse me, but I was wondering about the inn."
"Ah," said the man, glancing across the street. "They appeared to have closed up shop."
"Closed? I was here yesterday and it was open."
"Late last night, they packed up and left."
"Last night . . . . " Youko clenched her fists. "And that big guy was one of them?"
"Oh, you mean Koshou? Yeah, he is a big fellow."
"And a boy of about fourteen or so."
"Sekki, you mean. He's Koshou's kid brother. Did you come to see Koshou?"
"Not them. I came to see a girl, Suzu."
"I see," said the man, suppressing a yawn. He scratched at the back of his neck. "The girl with the sansui. They all left. Sorry, but I didn't find out where they went. Who are you, anyway?"
Youko answered with a slight nod, turned and walked away. She heard the man's angry voice behind her, but she didn't look around. Yesterday, hadn't Suzu said that Koshou was out? Hadn't she said that he'd be back?
Koshou had gone somewhere. Why close the inn and disappear? The rike had been attacked at the same time.
"Koshou . . . . "
She couldn't believe these events were unrelated. They attacked the rike and then absconded. At any rate, it'd be ridiculous to ask whether Suzu would be returning. She asked herself, "What the hell should I do now?"
The shrouded man whose presence caused Enho so much grief showed up at Rou's house. He'd met Koshou there. These men, also involved with the rike, had returned to Takuhou. Koshou, Sekki, the kaikyaku Suzu, and the child who had died in Takuhou--she simply couldn't see how they were all connected.
"I've got to find Koshou."
It was too soon to give up. Koshou, Sekki, and Suzu--Suzu had a sansui with her, and a sansui could be tracked.
"I'm definitely going to find them."
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
15-2 The house where Shoukei made herself useful was frequented by thirty or so people on a daily basis. At least fifty had stayed there at any one time. Moreover, they were also all clearly associates of Kantai.
Calling them mercenaries was no exaggeration. Many rode as bodyguards with the caravans arriving at and departing Meikaku. However, an equal number were holed up at the house, apparently waiting for something to happen. They didn't seem employed, but a significant number of them came and went quite frequently. Kantai didn't have a job. He was in charge of those at the house.
"Are you stuck here because you helped me?" Shoukei asked him one day.
Kantai shook his head. "No, I'm just a lazy bum."
With a lot of time on their hands, the boarders often jousted with swords and lances. Kantai didn't participate. For the most part, he only watched. But there was no doubt that the leader of the pack was Kantai. They paid him deference, and used polite language when addressing him. Shoukei was treated as his guest. Shoukei worked for her rent, but hardly anybody except Kantai asked her to do anything. Her impression was that a great variety of people had taken advantage of Kantai's offer of lodging, but what they really had in common was an animus toward Gahou, Province Lord of Wa.
A kind of self-made knight in shining armor.
They were a defiant and disciplined group of errant knights, united in opposition to Gahou. Shoukei got that much. From the way Kantai looked after them, she had a hunch there was more to it than that, though.
Where does the money come from?
He must have been raised in a wealthy household. Only that could account for the indifferent manner in which he spread the cash around. Perhaps, it occurred to Shoukei, all these mercenaries were in fact working for Kantai. Or perhaps Kantai himself . . . .
Pondering these things as she filled the cistern in the courtyard, the sound of horses' hooves came from the frontage of the building. Through the open main gate she saw a carriage drive up. A man stepped down from the carriage. A shroud covering his head and his face hidden from sight, he entered the gate. He took it upon himself to shut the doors. He finally raised his head and she heard the sound of the carriage departing.
"Um--?" Shoukei said.
He lowered the shroud to his shoulders, revealing a man in his forties. There was a great aura of authority about him. "And you are?" he asked, in a deep voice.
Keeping her doubts to herself, Shoukei replied with a slight bow. "I do odd jobs around the place. And who might you be?"
"I came to see Kantai. Is he in?"
The man nodded, and without further ado, headed toward the main wing. He showed no signs of wishing Shoukei to get Kantai for him or show him the way. Shoukei hurried after him.
"Um, excuse me, but how should I address you?" Shoukei knew that this was a residence that anybody and everybody were free to enter when they wished. But even without anybody saying so, she also clearly got the sense that a person of unknown provenance could not simply wander in off the street. "Are you a friend of Kantai's?"
Shoukei placed herself in his path, blocking his way. The man smiled. "I see. He finally found himself a capable handmaid. My name is Saibou. Please announce my presence to Kantai."
I'm not a handmaid, Shoukei said to herself, running up the stairs. She was almost to the living area when Kantai came out. "Kantai--" she said.
"Right," said Kantai, with a nod of his head. No doubt he'd heard her voice from the courtyard. He bowed his head low. Saibou nodded in a mindful manner, climbed the stairs, and entered the parlor.
"Kantai, that man is--"
"Yes, of course. I'll introduce you. Hold your horses."
She trailed after him. Perhaps, it now occurred to her, Kantai had been hired by somebody, and that somebody was this Saibou.
The parlor was right off the main hall. Hanging on the back wall were two banners decorated with Chinese characters. Between them was a decorative scroll. Below the scroll was a shelf, and in front of the shelf were a desk and two chairs. This was the study of the master of the house, but Saibou sat down as if he owned the place, and greeted Shoukei and Kantai.
"You hired yourself an interesting girl, there."
Kantai smiled. "I didn't exactly hire her," he said, and briefly explained how she had come to join them.
"I see," said Saibou with a small smile. "A girl with pluck. But I take it she was less than familiar with the risks of throwing a stone at a government official in Wa Province."
"Not necessarily. She's a refugee from Hou."
Saibou leaned forward and looked at her. "From Hou. Where were you born?"
Shoukei hesitated a moment, deciding whether to be honest and say Hoso, the capital of Hou, or Shindou in Kei Province. "Hoso," she said.
"Shoukei of Hoso. Huh." He didn't pursue the matter further. "So, Shoukei, do you understand what kind of people are gathered here?"
"I have a pretty good idea."
Saibou nodded. "Wa Province is a reflection of the temperament of Marquis Gahou. He oppresses the people, disregarding the honor of the Empress and the will of the kingdom. Corrupt retainers who would shake the roots of Kei cannot be left to their own devices."
"By all rights, the Empress should direct the affairs of the kingdom, but our new monarch has not been on the throne long, and the Royal Court is in the back pocket of officials who took advantage even before the Late Empress Yo-ou. Having been enthroned for barely half a year, it is doubtful that the current Empress has the means to resist them. Taking control of the court and extending the rule of law to the Nine Provinces by itself would be next to impossible. On top of that, the Empress is a taika, and knows little of Kei."
"If we investigate Gahou here, and raise a stink about the chaos in Wa Province and about Gahou's misrule, the Empress is bound to pay more attention to the suffering in all the Nine Provinces. And when she deigns to start paying attention, we shall petition her with all of the resources at our command."
"For the good of Wa Province, more than toppling Gahou, more than anything else, the Empress must be made aware of conditions here in Wa. Not overthrowing Gahou would be acceptable if the Empress were able to judge the situation correctly. Otherwise, we will no doubt be named enemies of Gahou and the crown, and will be destroyed. In light of all this, will you still stand by Kakutai, Shoukei?" Saibou addressed Kantai as "Kakutai."
Shoukei tightened her hand into a fist. "Yes. I truly believe the Royal Kei will recognize our cause." She had to believe, because of the way Rakushun cared so much about her. Even having attained the throne in her unfinished state, an Empress who worried so much about whether or not she was fit for the role should be nobody's fool.
Saibou smiled. "I see. Our guest from Hou believes in the Empress. There's something ironic about that."
"And you don't believe in her?"
"Because there are those who believe, I would like to as well."
Saibou didn't respond, but rapped lightly on the desk. "In any case, we welcome you, Shoukei. I am pleased to make your acquaintance."
"And I yours."
Next to her, Kantai tilted his head quizzically. "You didn't come all the way here to see Shoukei, did you?"
"Of course not," Saibou smiled. "Yes, I did have something I needed to do. I came to tell you, Kakutai."
"What is it?"
"A man by the name of Enho, the superintendent in Hokui, Ei Province--more specifically, the town of Kokei--has disappeared."
"By disappeared, you mean--"
"Yesterday, the rike in Kokei was attacked and a girl was murdered. Her younger brother and the superintendent were apparently kidnaped. Nothing was stolen from the rike. I have no idea why it was attacked. Men had been observed hanging around the rike. The word is, they were from Takuhou."
"Yesterday in Takuhou, the gates opened after sunset to admit a single carriage."
"Yes, of course."
Shoukei looked up at Kantai. "Meaning?"
"There is another beast in Takuhou, a man by the name of Shoukou. The gates could only have been opened after they were closed on the orders of somebody very high up. In the case of Takuhou, the first name that springs to mind is Shoukou. Turn over that rock, and you will definitely find Gahou there."
"So Gahou commanded Shoukou to kidnap the superintendent?" asked Shoukei.
Saibou smiled thinly. "Let's not rush to conclusions. That's what I'd like you to investigate."
"And one other thing. A package will arrive here tomorrow. I'd like you to deliver it to Rou in Hokui."
Kantai replied with a ironic smile. "Rou moved to Houkaku. Seems there was someone sniffing around his place."
Saibou furrowed his brow. "Rou moved?"
"I'm sure he'll fill me in when we deliver the goods."
Saibou nodded. "It's a shipment of winter weapons, twenty pieces. I shall leave their disposition to your good offices."
Kantai bowed low. "By your command."
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
15-3 Koshou and company moved to a brothel in the southwest corner of Takuhou. It was a brothel only in name. With so few women about, there weren't many left to do the entertaining. The remaining working girls had moved to higher class establishments in the eastern part of the city. The only ones who remained were two women well past their primes. Like the madam, they were friends of Koshou.
The character of a city depended a great deal on where you were. In most cases, the urban centers bordered the government offices to the south, with commercial markets located along the loop road. For both markets and residential areas, the low rent districts were found in the west, and trended richer toward the east.
"In fact, urban neighborhoods are supposed to be located in the northern section," Sekki instructed Suzu. The two of them were cleaning up around the forlorn brothel.
"Don't know. It seems to have been that way in older cities. That's what it says in really old books: the government compound is located in the center, and the commoners' residences are built to the north. In such a city, the west would enjoy a higher social status than the east. But most cities are the exact opposite."
Suzu said, "In all the cities I've been to, the most crowded areas are in the south, family estates in the center, and mausoleums and temples in the north."
"That's how it is, isn't it? You very often find that things are the opposite in cities that have been around for a long time, that haven't met with disaster. At some point, it all got turned upside down. It really is quite odd."
"Are you interested in things like that, Sekki?"
"Yeah," Sekki nodded, as he washed the cooking utensils.
"It's too bad you had to quit school."
"Yeah. But I don't think this is the time to indulge such thoughts. It would have been nice to be born in an era when a worthy empress resided in the capital and the kingdom was at peace, but that's just the way things are."
"It would have been nice to have been born in En or Sou."
Sekki smiled bitterly. "Unfortunately, imagining doesn't make it so. I was born in Kei. At the end of the day, you're born where you're born, and you can only change so much after that."
"You really do have a good head on your shoulders, Sekki. I understand why Koshou is so disappointed in the way things have turned out."
"I do worry about my big brother. It's in his nature to get more upset about what happens to others than to himself. He's always making other people's fights his own. But taking on something this big is amazing."
Suzu stopped what she was doing for a moment and blinked. "You don't agree with what he's doing?"
"That's not what I mean. But as much as the people of this town make my brother mad, he doesn't get mad at Shoukou. In other words, if he got really worried and started thinking seriously about how to dispose of Shoukou, he'd conclude it'd be better to go on living and putting up with whatever came his way."
"I get that." Suzu gazed at her hands. Getting injured always hurt. After a while, you reflexively became afraid of the pain. So you soldiered on in order to escape the pain. But at the same time, the soldiering on began to feel like an accomplishment, when nothing was actually changing.
Sekki sighed. "But what if my brother attacks Shoukou and fails? Shoukou will become enraged, and life will only get worse for the people of Shisui. The people of Shisui, in turn, will hate my brother."
"That's probably true."
"That's why it's just too risky to leave him to his own devices. But I really don't know if I'm being a help or a hindrance."
Sekki grinned mischievously. Suzu smiled as well. At that point, the aforementioned Koshou appeared. Suzu and Sekki exchanged glances and burst out laughing.
"What's going on?"
"Oh, nothing. What's up?"
Kousho beckoned to Suzu from the kitchen door. "Sorry, but I have a job for your sansui."
"You need to transport something?" Kousho often had Suzu carry goods to villages in the surrounding areas.
"Yes, but this time it's a bit further. A two-day journey to the east by horse cart, there's a city called Houkaku. Here's a map. Go to Rou's place. He should have the items we've requested."
Hansei Rou and Kousho were old friends.
"I'm sure Rou will do a good job packing them, but even if stopped by sentries, we cannot permit this shipment to be opened. If they were, they're bound to be stolen."
"These are items you don't want anybody to see?"
Kousho nodded. "Winter weapons."
Suzu stiffened at the mention of the term.
"They're pretty heavy, but not that bulky. Once they arrive, at the very least, we need to get these winter weapons into the skilled hands of a minimum number of our group."
Suzu nodded. "That's fine. I'll be going, then."
The next morning, Suzu left Takuhou and headed east on the main highway. On a sansui, the trip took half a day. Suzu arrived at Houkaku by noon. Houkaku was as big a city as Takuhou. Houkaku was the capital of Rouya prefecture, which was next to Shisui prefecture.
According to the map Kousho had drawn, Suzu looked for a house in the southwest part of the city. She found there a broken-down dump of a residence. The main gate facing the street was tightly shut. When she knocked on the gate, a fifty-something man with odd, mottled brown hair appeared.
"Who is it?"
Suzu bowed, greeting him as Koshou had instructed her. "I've come from Shikin, county of San, in Baku Province."
The man eyes suddenly fell upon her hands, focusing on her ring finger. "Come in."
Rou was cooperating in Koshou's cause, but he wasn't an intimate member of their group. The greeting was not used when seeing friends, but to establish Suzu's bono fides as a trustworthy ally.
Through the door was a narrow courtyard. At the back of the courtyard was an old house no wider than the yard, a small building no larger than a shack. Suzu led the sansui into the courtyard. The man closed the gate behind her and said, "I'm Hansei Rou. Koshou and I hail from the same home town."
"Yes. I came to pick up the shipment."
"Right," Rou nodded. He said with a grim expression, "That is the case, but the shipment in question hasn't arrived."
"Today, I was supposed to get two separate shipments, but neither has arrived. I'm sorry, but perhaps I could ask you to wait?"
"Okay," said Suzu. Koshou had told her to follow Rou's instructions after she got here.
"If the shipments arrive this evening, I'll have to ask you stay overnight. The place is a mess, but there is a room where you can sleep. I apologize for the inconvenience."
"It's fine. No problem."
"You might as well sit back and relax. I'll get water for that fine horse of yours. Would you like some tea?"
"Sure," Suzu said, with a nod.
Rou wasn't a handsome man, but proved to be a good talker. They sat down at a stone table and watched the sansui munching on the feed and conversed about this and that.
"So you're all the way from Sai? That must have been one long trip."
"I came most of the way by ship."
"What do you think of Kei? Must be pretty cold compared to Sai."
"I was with a troupe of traveling entertainers for a while, so I've been all over the place."
"How about that."
A knock came at the gate. "And now they show up!" Rou playfully scowled. He opened the doors. After exchanging a few words with the visitor in a low voice, a girl about Suzu's age appeared, leading a horse. Her hair was mottled like Rou's but a dark blue color. It struck Suzu as quite extraordinary.
"Well, at least twenty have arrived," Rou said with forced smile. He showed the girl to the table. "Why don't you take your time as well?"
"But--" the girl said, glancing up at him.
"Sorry," said Rou. "Without all thirty pieces, this girl isn't going to pay me. And without that money, I can't pay you."
Suzu raised her voice. "If that's the case, I can pay--"
Rou raised his hand, cutting her off. "No. My place, my rules, and that's not my line of business. I'm the broker, not a dealer."
Rou grinned and glanced over his shoulder at the girl. "That being the case, you'll have to wait for a while. Save your complaints for the tardy party. Would you like some tea, too?"
"Thank you," she nodded.
Suzu gave her a good, long look. From the bone structure of her face, she could tell she was a beautiful woman. They were about the same age. At Rou's urging, she sat down in one of the stone chairs and glanced at Suzu. Her gaze quickly moved onto the sansui.
"A sansui," she said.
Suzu leaned forward. "Are you familiar with sansui?"
"I've seen one or two before."
"Oh. I'm from Takuhou. I'm Suzu. And you are?"
"I came from Meikaku. My name is Shoukei."
"We seem about the same age. How old are you?"
Shoukei seemed to mull the question over momentarily. "Sixteen."
Suzu was about to say that she was, too, but hesitated. What was the best way to describe her age? She was swept into this world at the age of fourteen, twelve by the way birthdays were counted here. After that, she'd wandered hither and yon for four years, and then had become a wizard. That would make her sixteen, more or less.
"I'm the same age," Suzu said. Shoukei tilted her head to one side, but said nothing more. Suzu said, "Shoukei, are you a subject of Kei?"
"No. I'm from Hou."
"Hou? The northwest kingdom in the Kyokai?"
"Yes. One of the four Outland Kingdoms. How about yourself?"
"I'm from Sai. We've both come from far away kingdoms."
"Indeed," laughed Shoukei.
Suzu felt herself relaxing. "This is nice. It's not often that I've gotten to meet a girl my same age in Kei."
"That's true. So why have you traveled so far to get here?"
Suzu pondered the question. She'd set out on her journey for any numbers of reasons, and all of them were dead and gone. Her past desires had no relationship to who she was now. "Oh, this and that."
"This and that brought you all the way to Kei?"
"Well, first of all, I heard that the Empress of Kei was a girl my same age--"
Shoukei eyes blinked and opened a bit wider.
"--and that she was a kaikyaku like me."
"You're also from Yamato?"
"Yes, that's right. With no place to call my own, I thought I'd call the kingdom of a fellow kaikyaku my home. Does that make any sense?"
Shoukei looked at her, her face blank with surprise. Finally she laughed and said, "Me, too."
"Eh? You're a kaikyaku?"
"No. I also came to this kingdom to see the Royal Kei--"
Suzu gaped at her.
"--because she was an empress the same age as me."
"That's weird. So the two of us, from Sai and Hou, came here to see the Royal Kei, and just happened to meet."
"Sure seems like it."
"You're not kidding."
Suzu and Shoukei giggled. "Hey!" came Rou's voice behind them. "No carrying on personal conversations!"
Suzu looked back with surprise, Rou was standing there, teacups in hand, and a sour look on his face. "No private chitchat between people who meet here. My place, my rules."
"Oh . . . sorry."
"I'm a broker of things, not of people. People who use my services are people with a reason for being here. No shady types set one foot inside the gate. And whatever reasons the two of you have, best you not know too much about each other."
"Sure," said Suzu, with a shrug of her shoulders. She glanced at Shoukei and caught her looking the same way, and for a moment their eyes met.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
15-4 The next shipment didn't arrive until just before the gates closed. As Suzu and Shoukei couldn't leave Houkaku, they had no choice but to stay the night at Rou's place. They ended up sleeping in a small room furnished with a divan and a bed without a canopy. Two people in a space meant for one.
"Which one do you want? The bed or the divan?"
"Then you take the bed. I'll sleep on the divan."
"You don't have to do that."
"I'm returning on the sansui. Meikaku is way to the east, isn't it? And you've got to go back by horse, right?"
"Meikaku is only a day's ride by horse."
"You should take the bed, then. It's only a half-day ride for me."
Shoukei thought about it for a minute, then nodded. "Thanks. To tell the truth, it'd be nice for a change. I've been sleeping on a couch for so long."
"Really? Well, great then."
The two girls grinned at each other.
"Suzu," Shoukei asked, "what do you do in Takuhou?" And then quickly added, "Maybe that's the kind of thing I'm not supposed to ask."
"Let's pretend we didn't hear anybody say that."
They both giggled, the private laughter filling the small room.
"Oh, I do odd jobs around the inn. How about you, Shoukei?"
"So how did you come across--" those weapons, Suzu started to ask, and thought better of the question. They were probably getting a bit over their heads with a subject like that.
But Shoukei leaned forward and answered. "It is out of the ordinary. Do you know what's in those crates?"
"More or less."
"Winter weapons. To be used how? And there are thirty of them. Not things you can easily lay your hands on."
"Did the people you got them from say what they would do with the weapons?"
"I was only asked to make the delivery."
A moment of silence followed, the two of them exchanging glances. Shoukei smiled first. "I haven't the slightest idea. It is unusual, amassing winter weapons like that. But somebody with money must be behind it."
"Yeah. I guess we've been told only what we need to know."
Shoukei tilted her head to the side and looked at Suzu. The girl from Takuhou was taking back a shipment of thirty winter weapons. The price of those thirty would be approximate to that of 300 ordinary weapons.
From Takuhou. "Then perhaps the target is Shoukou?"
Suzu waved her hands in denial. "No, it can't be."
"The man who sent me here is gathering mercenaries instead of winter weapons."
Suzu's eyes flew open. "Gahou."
"Undoubtedly. Are you thinking the same thing I am?"
"Sure seems like it."
The bedroom fell into silence. Suzu sat down on the divan and sighed. "The kid I was traveling with got killed by Shoukou."
"Why can a public servant like Shoukou get away with things like that? Shisui really is an awful place."
"I've heard rumors."
"Those rumors are only half as true as reality. Seishuu--the boy I made it all the way to Takuhou with--he didn't do anything wrong. He was killed for getting in the way of Shoukou's carriage. I was so angry. When I try to imagine people looking the other way when things like that happen, I get so mad I can't stand it. But Shoukou--"
"--has got Gahou watching his back."
Suzu blinked. "You know that for certain?"
"That's what everybody says: Gahou and Shoukou are two peas in a pod."
"No doubt they are. I'd sure like to see Shoukou and his ilk get what they deserve. With the Royal Kei looking out for Gahou, nobody's going to try and punish Shoukou. That's why we've got no choice but to take the initiative ourselves, right?"
"I don't agree."
"I don't think the Royal Kei is doing anything like protecting Gahou. Isn't that what the Late Empress Yo-ou did, you mean?"
"It was true of the Late Empress Yo-ou, and the current Empress, too--"
"The person who brought me here said that the Royal Kei simply doesn't know about things like that."
Shoukei looked intently at Suzu. "When I was in Ryuu, I met a friend of the Royal Kei."
"One of her closest companions. I can't believe she's that bad of a person. She wouldn't protect Shoukou or collude with Gahou."
"The Royal Kei has only recently acceded to the throne. There's got to be a lot she doesn't understand. I think that's what it comes down to."
"Ignorance is no defense. She's the Empress, after all."
Shoukei gave Suzu a long, hard look. Then she said, "My father was the king."
"He . . . what?"
"The Royal Hou. Three years ago his subjects rose up and overthrew him."
Suzu gaped at her.
"My father was detested by the people. The result of all that hate was regicide. They hate him even now, and there's nothing I could do to change that. But even with a father like that, watching him die hurt terribly. Probably as much as it hurt when Seishuu died."
"In order to prevent my father's death, before the hate grew so intense, I should have remonstrated with him. I loathe myself now for not doing so. What if all the people surrounding the Royal Kei are naive dunces like I was? She'll be hated as my parents were. There were people who even said that I condoned my father's sins." Shoukei lowered her gaze. "I don't know what's really happening. But if the Royal Kei is surrounded only by those kinds of people? My father was chosen by Hourin. He couldn't have been doomed from the start. But when the people around him tried to warn him and couldn't get through to him, he ended up parting from the Way."
Suzu examined the longing look on Shoukei's face, an expression that brought to mind another person she'd met recently: She's a puppet.
"You're right," Suzu said. Shoukei tilted her head quizzically. Suzu continued, "I met somebody else who said the same thing. Only rumors, but the word was that the Empress doesn't have the trust of her retainers and can't get them to do anything she wants. So her only recourse is to do what they tell her to do."
"You think that's really what's going on?"
"I've heard that most of the ministers at the Royal Court are from the era of the Late Empress Yo-ou. I think you can guess what kind of people they are. The same ones who stood by while Yo-ou fell from Way before their very eyes."
"But the Royal Kei dismissed the Province Lord of Baku. Wasn't he beloved by his people?"
"Standard practice for corrupt officials. Of course, beasts like Gahou and Shoukou would conspire against an accomplished and respected man like the Marquis. They'd cook up some crime to frame him with."
"There's a superintendent in Ei Province by the name of Enho. I've heard that he's highly knowledgeable of the Way. The rike where Enho was superintendent was attacked. The attackers killed a girl and kidnapped Enho. A gang was hanging around the rike, and rumor has it they were from Takuhou. I've also heard that the same day Enho was assaulted, even after the gates were closed, they were opened again."
"You're kidding." Very few people could order a city gate reopened after it was closed. "It must have been Shoukou."
"He's the only one who could pull off something like that, don't you think? Just like the people around the Royal Kei could engineer the downfall of the Marquis without breaking a sweat."
Shoukei looked into Suzu's eyes. Her big eyes suddenly brimmed over. Shoukei watched her silently.
"The Royal Kei . . . she's a good person?"
"I have to think so. The way you asked, do you not like her?"
Suzu shook her head. "It'd be such a relief is she were."
"I wanted to see her. I thought for certain she must be a good person. I met Seishuu on the ship from Sai. He was in a really bad state, and I was worried sick about him. I told him we'd go to Gyouten together . . . . "
Suzu spoke his name in such a grief-stricken voice it made her heart ache.
"But he was killed by Shoukou. Anybody who'd let a beast like that run free, who'd protect him, wouldn't have done anything for Seishuu if I had taken him to Gyouten. So what did I bring him to Takuhou for? Just to die?"
"Suzu--" Shoukei said, taking hold of her hand.
"He was such an unfortunate kid."
"Yes, he was."
"If we had gotten to Gyouten, the Royal Kei would have helped him."
Shoukei stroked the back of the sobbing Suzu. She wept like a child. It was enough to break her heart.
I only wish you could understand.
That was all she desired to say to the Empress in Gyouten. Shoukei didn't know whether or not the Royal Kei could have healed Seishuu. She wished--
I only wish you could understand how all the hopes of the people rest upon your shoulders.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
Part XVI (Chapter 60)
houkei picked up the reins of the horse. "Are you going straight back to Takuhou?" she asked Suzu, who was holding the reins of her sansui.
"Yes," said Suzu.
"I hope we meet again."
Suzu answered with a nod.
Where do you live-- Shoukei almost asked, but swallowed her words. They'd talked about so much. She had the feeling they'd talked about things that would bring a scowl even to Kantai's face. Nonetheless, she and Suzu knew the limits of what they could say to each other.
"It was really nice being able to meet you," said Suzu, looking on the verge of tears.
Shoukei nodded firmly. "We'll definitely see each other again, after everything settles down."
With that, they averted their eyes and mounted up. "Later," they said to each other, and separated on the main highway to the east and to the west.
A day's ride brought Shoukei to Meikaku. She wrapped her shawl loosely around her head as she approached the gates. Though the search for the stone-throwing girl had been called off for the time being, she couldn't be too cautious. The guardsman gave her a once-over, but paid her no particular attention.
In Meikaku, or rather, in the cities of Hokkaku and Toukaku that had grown out of Meikaku, the criminal element was prevalent, and even if very few of them went around throwing stones at officials, the authorities couldn't go on chasing Shoukei forever.
The merchant caravans found themselves thrown into this cauldron of refugees and the teeming poor. It was hard to believe they didn't find it completely disorienting. With nothing to eat, and with no other recourses, starving people would attack wagons hauling grain shipments and were arrested by the police. That they weren't dragged off to the main square could be considered a salvation of sorts, but nobody knew where they were held.
According to the mercenaries, even when highwaymen were arrested, they could win release by greasing a few palms with their share of the loot.
The poor and downtrodden joined gangs that teamed up to attack the caravans, knowing that if they were arrested they wouldn't be punished. Even if their hard-won proceeds were confiscated, and they were lucky enough not to get arrested, at least the pressing hunger would be alleviated. And even when the caravans hired bodyguards, they surely couldn't protect every piece of cargo. Looting and plunder that began in poverty was bound to repeat itself over and over.
A training ground for thievery, that's what Kantai said. Every time he caught one of these self-made highwaymen, the stolen merchandise went to the Provincial Guard. It was never returned to its rightful owner. That was how Wa Province enriched itself.
Traders were aware of this, but had no choice but to go through Meikaku. Smaller merchants formed their own syndicates and hired mercenaries. They bribed provincial officials and demanded that the authorities enforce the law. But depending on what was being transported, there weren't any guarantee that their own bodyguards wouldn't turn on them. In fact, it was hardly uncommon.
Strongmen with the slightest confidence in their abilities gathered from the outlying districts to find work. The competition led to bloodshed over and over.
Shoukei sighed, dismounted from the horse, and walked through the gate.
"So you're finally back. You're late."
Kantai was addressing a number of men when she entered the main hall. When he saw her, he waved the men off. The men got up and left to a separate wing.
"One other shipment didn't arrive," said Shoukei, and forthrightly informed him about what had transpired. She handed Kantai the money she'd gotten from Suzu via Rou.
"That's unfortunate. Did Rou say anything more about his move to Houkaku?"
"There was a girl--" Shoukei knit her brows. Kantai had asked her to inquire into the subject, and she had been told something about it.
"Apparently there was a girl checking out Rou's place in Hokui."
"About the same time he was meeting with the people in Takuhou. A little while later, the same girl visited them in Takuhou. After that, Rou was warned that it'd be a good idea if they moved."
She related the account as she'd heard it. She leaned forward. "So, what kind of man is this Rou?"
"A good man with a good heart. In short, he's an associate of Saibou."
"And what about Saibou? He's the one who hired you?"
"Not the case here. He's somebody who helped me out in the past. Let's leave it at that."
"Saibou helped you out? Or one of his superiors?"
Kantai eyes opened a bit wider and he smiled thinly. He motioned for her to get a chair and sit down next to him. "What do you mean, 'or one of his superiors?'"
"That's the sense I got about him. It seemed to me that Saibou-sama was working for somebody, too."
That was the impression she'd gotten from a word here and there. Somebody had asked Saibou to deliver the message to Kantai. Saibou had no faith in the Empress, but the man who sent him did.
Kantai answered with another wry smile. "I see, a woman's intuition."
"Of course. And?"
"This is the case. Except that nobody's been hired by anybody. Saibou-sama owes the man a debt, and I owe them both. We all agreed that something must be done about Wa Province. To be sure, I get financing through Saibou-sama, but only because the war funds have been entrusted to him."
"Meaning that Saibou's superior is the person in charge? Enho, perhaps?"
Kantai smiled softly. "I don't know Enho, either. Beyond that, don't ask because I won't tell."
"Ah," said Shoukei, closing her mouth on the subject.
"There are men who live apart from society and teach the Way. Through their words, they attempt to keep the kingdom on the path of righteousness. I think Enho is one such person. I couldn't say for certain, though. There are those who try to keep the kingdom true through their actions. Those who arm themselves, as I do, resolved to support like-minded individuals through intermediaries like Rou. In this kingdom, there are many who lament what Kei has become. Not just us."
"Well . . . yes."
"The same way we have Gahou in our sights, in Takuhou there are people targeting Shoukou. Yes, I see. So there are some men with backbone still living in Takuhou."
"I met the girl from Takuhou. She took the winter weapons back with her."
Kantai furrowed his brows. "If they're amassing winter weapons, then they must be getting ready to strike."
"I think so," said Shoukei, dropping her voice. She had to wonder if Suzu was okay.
"Rou is one of Saibou's old acquaintances. No, better to call him an old classmate of our superior. They both attended the Evergreen Seminary in the western province of Baku."
"A seminary? Is that like an academy?"
A great deal of self-study was required in order to gain admittance to university. To supplement that self-study, students often asked learned men to tutor them, and learned men would in turn open private tutoring schools, or juku.
"The Evergreen Seminary was a kind of private academy that teaches not worldly knowledge, but the Way. Rou is a graduate of the Evergreen Seminary. Because it wasn't an academic juku, anybody could attend. Graduates of the seminary would not necessarily become public servants. But if the kingdom strays from the Way, these paladins will turn out in force."
"Saibou and our superior graduated from the Evergreen Seminary as well. That is probably how they got to know each other. In any case, Evergreen Seminary is known throughout Kei, with many calling it their alma mater. Though not anymore."
"Not anymore? The Evergreen Seminary?"
"It was struck by arsonists a year ago. The instructors were murdered and the lecture hall destroyed. The head of the gang was apparently a drifter, a refugee, but he was killed moments before being arrested. Somebody was pulling the strings behind the scenes and made sure he wouldn't talk. Nobody knows who, though."
"Because some people aren't happy about the teachings of the Way. When a kingdom begins to falter, the followers of the Way are the first ones to turn their critical gaze on the government."
"I see," said Shoukei, lowering her gaze.
"Evergreen Seminary was located in the city of Shishou, San county, in Baku Province. In the past, it was called the city of Shikin. Several centuries ago, a Wizard of the Air by the name of Rou Shou appeared there. He was the legendary wizard who rose to wizardhood according to his own virtue, and then went among the people and taught the Way. Nobody knows whether a man named Rou Shou really existed or not. San County was already famous as the home of many ministers and paladins. The citizens of San County are understandably proud of their hometown boys, and when the kingdom lurches off in some crazy direction, they're the first to raise a stink. As the center of it all, the Evergreen Seminary no doubt caught the worst of backlash."
"The Province Lord of Baku also came from that area?"
Kantai gave her a surprised look. "The Marquis? I wouldn't know. Why him, all of sudden?"
"The girl I met at Rou's place said something to that effect. The people of Baku loved the Marquis, but he was dismissed, anyway."
"Yes, I see." Kantai smiled thinly. "The Province Lords are not necessary children of their own provinces. Gahou was originally from Baku Province."
Kantai answered with a troubled smile. "You will find both devils and angels everywhere you look."
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
16-2 "You're back!"
The cheerful cry arose from the decrepit brothel in a corner of Takuhou. Having brought the shipment home safely, Suzu was bombarded with praise.
The crates were opened and winter weapons of various sizes taken out and inspected. These valuable weapons had been collected from all of the kingdoms. Buying one or two was one thing. But more than ten, and an arms dealer would definitely suspect a rebellion in the making. Putting a large cache of weapons together without considerable connections would have been well-nigh impossible.
"Thirty swords, twenty lances we had on hand from before, thirty bows and a thousand arrows--our entire stash." Koshou looked at everybody gathered in the hall. "I know that eighty winter weapons are hardly anything divided among our thousand comrades. I'm sorry, but this is the best we can do." His voice echoed in the silent room. "I'm also aware that going up against the governor with a mere thousand comrades-in-arms is something of a joke. Afterward, we will have no choice but to appeal to the people of Shisui and ask them to join our cause."
"We'll be fine!" somebody called out. "Once we raise the head of Shoukou, all those who cowered before him will surely come to realize that it is not too soon to give up the fight. I'm sure that's how the tide will turn."
In a corner of the hall, Suzu felt herself shiver. The man's words sounded more like an attempt at self-persuasion. When she glanced at Sekki, standing next to the man, he had a look of forbearance on his face that no doubt matched her own.
Suzu vaguely believed that things would turn out all right for Koshou. But she didn't know if Koshou and the rest of them understood that things weren't fine at all.
"Sekki!" Suzu sought out Sekki from the men exiting the hall. She caught him by the arm and dragged him into a nearby dusty guest room. "Is Koshou really okay with this?"
Sekki leaned against the wall and shrugged. "I have to think so."
"Are a thousand really enough?"
"More than enough to take out Shoukou. He's got a hundred guards at his private residence and take no more than fifty with him when he's on the road."
Suzu sighed in relief. "So one way or another--"
"The problem is what comes afterward."
"If we can bring down a provincial governor and end up with twenty men who can still wield a sword, we'll consider ourselves lucky. It's not our intent to take out Shoukou merely for our own self-righteous satisfaction, and then run away as fast as we can."
Sekki countered with an ironic smile. "That's what criminals do, Suzu."
"If we assassinate Shoukou and go on the lam, the people of Takuhou will be thrown into the maelstrom. Shoukou's colleagues within the prefectural castle walls will surely not let the matter rest short of coming after us. This is our opportunity to execute a most meritorious deed. But Shoukou and his underlings who have been living the good life along with him are all birds of a feather. They will surely put the people of Takuhou on the rack and root out the wrong-doers. That's why our object is not to strike at Shoukou and then quietly fade away."
"But if you don't--"
"Those underlings of his will be made to understand who we are and why we did what we did. While contending with those seeking retribution against us, we will attempt to flee to a neighboring province."
"Won't a thousand be too few to accomplish that?"
"Laughably so. Three battalions of five-hundred provincial soldiers each are stationed in Takuhou, along with a thousand prefectural guards and five hundred praetorians."
"Not only that, but our opponents will be trained in warfare, while there are few among us who can wield a sword with any skill. On top of that, as time passes, troops will no doubt be sent from Meikaku. After a few days, if only provincial troops end up garrisoned in the vicinity, I'd estimate three thousand. It's even possible that all four divisions of the provincial guard will end up on our doorstep."
"You can't possibly--"
"If the people of Takuhou do not act in concert and resist them on our behalf, we will all die."
"This is insanity! To what end?"
"To raise the banner of revolt. Killing Shoukou is not the goal. His death is not the end of our cause. After that, the people of Takuhou must show their mettle."
"There is no other course. If you cannot condone Shoukou and others of his ilk, then raise the banner of revolt, and let the ministers and all the higher-ups know that we will not stand for their kind any longer."
Suzu pursed her lips. "You're right."
"You are free to leave."
Suzu shook her head. "No. I'm staying right here."
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
16-3 Youko paced the streets of Takuhou. Her best lead was the trail left by Suzu's sansui. But it was not a well-known species of pegasus, and after beating the pavement and asking around, neither she nor the people she questioned were any wiser as to the nature and fate of the creature in question.
Although she'd asked Hankyo to look for the sansui, he was not likely to ferret out the creature in a city of this size in such a short space of time.
Koshou, Sekki, Suzu. All she had were those three names. No more clues than these? She asked Koshou's neighbors about his whereabouts, but nobody would answer her questions. Clearly, most if not all of them were hiding the truth from her.
She talked to many people, asking about Koshou, and couldn't but become aware of the despondent expressions on their faces. A child had died in this city, and its citizens had watched the carriage drive away, pretending that nothing had happened. She saw that same mind set everywhere she went. What are you looking for him for? she was asked over and over. Even when she explained about the attack on the rike, she was told, "Well, that's too bad," and with those words of consolation, they crossed the street to get away from her.
No consciences were stirred, and no one showed the slightest inclination in helping her. Far from it, the only attention she received was from those warning her to lay off.
What has happened to this city? she thought, passing through the gate of an inn. "Excuse me," she said, and proceeded to ask if anybody there knew a man named Koshou, or if Suzu or Sekki had stayed here before. It stood to reason that a fellow innkeeper might know. Having moved, though, Koshou could be lodging anywhere. But she had no good grounds on which to proceed. She was equally aware of the possibility that he might have simply left town.
"Don't know," the innkeeper bluntly replied.
"Is that so? Thanks, anyway."
She stepped outside and lingered for a while in front of the establishment. While she'd been talking with the innkeeper, Hankyo had surreptitiously checked inside for any you-beasts quartered there.
"None," came the faint whisper when he returned.
Youko nodded to herself. She had started for the next inn along the way when a voice called out behind her. "You looking for somebody?"
When she turned around, a man was coming out from the inn after her. At a glance, he struck her as anything but an upstanding member of society.
"That's right. Do you know a man named Koshou?"
"Koshou, eh?" The man motioned her toward an alleyway next to the inn. Without a word, Youko followed him.
"So what's this Koshou to you, anyway?"
"The rike in Kokei was attacked. I'm looking for some connection between him and the criminals who did it. If you know anything, tell me."
The man leaned against the wall. "You got any evidence for what you're talking about?"
"No evidence. That's why I'm looking for him."
"Huh," the man said. His eyes fell to Youko's waist. "Some sword you got there. You know how to use that thing?"
"It's for my own protection."
"Really." The man straightened himself. "Can't say I know a thing about anybody named Koshou. But if this Koshou was some kind of criminal, you don't expect that he'd still be hanging around here, do you? He would have flown to coop long ago."
Youko looked up at the man's face. He knows something, she thought to herself. "Yeah, I guess you're right."
"I usually am. You can't go chasing around after people without any evidence. It could be this Koshou's no criminal at all."
The man scratched at the back of his neck. Her eyes fell on his rough hands and her attention focusing to a point.
"While you're traipsing around asking questions like this, you're bound to run into some real villains. Could get dangerous, don't you think?"
A ring. A ring that didn't match up with the man's overall appearance.
"Don't go looking for trouble. Leave that to the authorities."
Koshou, Youko remembered. Koshou wore a ring just like that one. And so did the kid who'd stopped him from roughing her up. And the girl, Suzu, who'd served her tea.
"Shouldn't go around wasting folks' time like this," he said with a flippant wave of the hand.
He turned on his heels. Youko strode toward him. He glanced back at her suspiciously. She caught him by the shoulder and spun him around.
Grabbing him by the collar, she slammed him into the wall, pressing her shoulder against his back. The man bellowed. She laid the tip of the blade against his neck. "Would you like to find out whether or not I can use this sword?"
"Where did you get that ring?"
The man squirmed and pushed her away. She firmed her hold on the sword. The tip sank a few millimeters into his flesh. "Quit moving unless you want get hurt a lot worse."
The man's head nodded forward and he caught his breath, sending a shiver down the length of the sword. A slash of red appeared from a section of the streaked, stained wall above his head. The forefoot of a beast grew out of the wall, extending its claws atop the man's head. His cheek pressed against the brick, the man grasped something of what was happening and cast her a beseeching, sideways glance.
"You know who Koshou is?"
"You're lying. Look, my arm's getting tired. You'd better have something to say before my hand starts to shake too much."
"I don't know!"
"All I want is to sit down and talk. The way you're holding out makes me think that both of you are criminals."
"You've taken leave of your senses!"
"Now you're just pissing me off. Talk."
A moment passed.
"Koshou isn't that kind of man."
"And if we can sit down and talk about it, then hopefully I'll agree with you."
"You're wrong. Believe me."
"Take me to his place. Then I'll have reason to."
"Okay, okay," the man groaned.
At the same time, the forefoot of the beast vanished. Youko drew back the tip of the sword. Sensing no resistance from him, she released her hold.
The man placed his hands on the wall and shook his head. With the hand bearing the ring, he wiped the back of his neck, looked at his palm, and grimaced. "You would go this far? You're crazy, woman."
"And you'd better keep your promise. Try anything funny, and next time this sword will cut you for good."
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
16-4 The man led Youko to a block in the southwest quadrant of the city, to a row of inns that had really gone to the dogs. The green paint had mostly peeled off the faded, soot-stained walls. This turquoise color was rare, specially reserved for buildings used as brothels.
"You've got to be kidding me."
"Don't get snooty," the man replied. "You'll understand once you meet Koshou. That's why I brought you here. Don't start distrusting me now."
They entered the brothel. Immediately inside the brothel was a small dining hall. Hardly anybody was there. An old man hurried out to meet them. Following behind her guide, Youko stood with her back to the door and watched as he and the old man exchanged a few words
The man retreated into the back room. Soon, in his place, emerged the man she'd met before.
"So, it's that girl again."
"And you're Koshou?"
The man nodded. He gestured toward the dining hall with his chin. "Have a seat. But a meal costs even more than it did before."
"I came here to ask you a few questions."
"So sit. I've got no reason to cross swords with you."
Youko hesitated, spotting two or three other men poking their heads out from the back room. But not sensing in the least any impending assault, she nodded and took a seat.
"You were in Hokui."
Koshou sat down opposite her. "I was. As I recall, I was leaving the house of an associate of mine."
"You didn't say so before."
"I've got reasons of my own for holding my tongue. I'm telling you now, so give me a break."
"For quite some time, a suspicious character has been coming by the rike. The man who led him there was Rou."
"The rike?" Koshou asked, disbelievingly. Her guide and the old man were also at a loss for words.
"The rike in Kokei. I've been staying there."
"Whatever the case, Rou is an intermediary. It's rare for him to extend his services to people, but not so rare for him to be around running errands. Rou and I go way back. I guess you didn't know that."
"Before the rike was attacked, some men seemed to be checking the place out. They returned to Takuhou."
"Attacked? The rike in Kokei was attacked?"
Youko nodded. Koshou was so truly astonished that she almost shook her head in wonder.
Koshou glanced back over his shoulder. "Somebody go get Suzu!"
Suzu's eyes opened wide when she saw Youko sitting there. Before Youko could speak, Koshou said, "Suzu, when you were in Houkaku, didn't you hear talk about somebody getting kidnapped?"
Suzu nodded. "There was talk about a rike in Eishuu being attacked and the superintendent kidnapped."
"What was the city? And the name of the superintendent who was kidnapped?"
"I didn't get the name of the city. As for the man's name . . . I know it was mentioned, but I can't recall."
"Enho," Youko interjected.
Suzu nodded forcefully. "Yes, that's right. It was Enho."
Koshou turned back to Youko. "Enho was kidnapped? Really?"
"Do you know him? Enho?"
"My little brother has attended his lectures on occasion. I went with him once. To be sure, it was Rou who made the introductions. Enho is a renown scholar, so I wanted him to meet my brother."
"Brother--oh, the boy I met before? Fourteen or so?"
"That's right, Sekki. You really don't know where Enho is? Was anybody at the rike injured?"
Youko took a breath. Koshou truly looked as if this had all hit him from out of blue. That being the case, the trail for the real criminals had again run cold. "A girl was murdered."
"That would have been Rangyoku?"
Youko nodded. "Shady types had been hanging around the rike, and everything I knew pointed to you. To make matters worse, after the rike was attacked, you packed up and left."
Koshou smiled at the irony. "We had things on our hands as well. Not something to make a big deal about, but people snooping around puts us on edge. There was this suspicious character who came around twice. We didn't like the way the wind was blowing, and pulled up stakes."
"Where did you go?"
"Not far off. That was the same day the rike was attacked?"
Youko nodded. "Sometime between noon and sundown. Probably about the same time I was talking with Suzu, or just after."
"I was in the inn the same time you were. I returned when you were talking to Suzu."
"Eh?" Youko said, looking at him.
"You were talking about the Marquis of Baku. You seemed awful suspicious to me. I spied on you from the kitchen." He spoke with the same wry smile.
"It was Shoukou," Suzu said in a low voice. Youko turned to her. "That day, after the gates of Takuhou closed, a wagon returned to the city and the gates were opened again to let it in."
"I see," she heard a small voice behind her say. She glanced back over her shoulder. Sekki was standing there.
"Have you thought about why Enho would be targeted?"
"No," Youko answered honestly.
"What kind of person is Enho?"
"I know that he was originally a citizen of Baku. That's all."
Sekki nodded. "He was connected with the Evergreen Seminary in Baku Province. He wasn't an instructor, but I've heard that he consulted with people in a similar capacity to that of a teacher. Beyond that, I don't know much more."
"The Evergreen Seminary?"
"In the middle of the city in San County. A highly respected private school dedicated to the teaching of the Way. Last year it was raided by arsonists. The school was destroyed and all the instructors killed, but a number of people managed to survive. Rou has mentioned that he was attending the Evergreen Seminary, so I'm sure he has some connections to it."
"So all these people who came to visit Enho--"
"Most likely, yes. Rou earnestly asked that this not be divulged. Even today, people connected to the Evergreen Seminary are being hunted down."
"Hunted down? Why?"
Sekki answered plainly. "Because it's a thorn in the side of those who have fallen from the Way following after their own selfish desires."
"Men like that--"
"Men like that can't abide people knowing about the Way. Neither can they abide it when they take up the reins of government. You see, if they can't completely surround themselves with people just like them, who claim not to give a damn about Virtue or the Way, they'll be deposed sooner or later."
"I've heard that the Marquis of Baku attended the Evergreen Seminary as well. Because they found the existence of the Marquis so intolerable, they plotted to unseat him. Those who followed the pretender on one side, and the Marquis--who opposed her--on the other. If he turned out to be right, then all those who followed her would lose their place of power. So they whispered half-truths in the ear of the Empress and entrapped the Marquis. Such is the nature of the lot we are dealing with."
"Indeed," Youko said, placing a hand on her forehead.
"According to Rou, the attack on the Evergreen Seminary came at the instigation of the vice-minister in the Shisui Prefecture Ministry of Summer."
"We asked for further details, but nobody would talk, so we only heard this second-hand. But the criminals who attacked and burned the Evergreen Seminary were said to be itinerants, coiled snakes that crawled out of Takuhou. Right after the attack, the current vice-minister, a mere itinerant at the time, was promoted to the ministry. That's some promotion. The criminals and the vice-minister were surely acquaintances."
"Shoukou, you mean."
Sekki nodded. "The vice-minister was pulling the strings behind the scenes, but the mastermind was surely Shoukou. I have no idea why Shoukou should so despise a seminary in Baku Province. But if he knew that survivors from the seminary were in Hokui, he would make every effort to finish them off. That's the kind of man he is."
Youko looked at the face of the boy who was relating all this so calmly. "So Enho is perhaps in Takuhou?"
"The possibility is high. Whether alive or dead, I can't say."
Youko jumped to her feet.
"Hey, where you going?
She stopped at the sound of Koshou's voice. "I'm going to rescue him."
"Don't talk nonsense!"
"I have to!" She owned him that debt of moral obligation and respect. Rangyoku was dead and Keikei lay at death's door. Only Enho could she save.
Koshou grabbed her by the arm. She jerked herself free of his grasp. Sekki stood in front of her, blocking the way. She took him by the shoulders and pushed him to the side.
"Youshi! Wait!" Suzu's shrill voice froze her in her tracks. "Shoukou has dozens of guards at his beck and call. His carriage entered Takuhou, but do you have any idea where he went? Or the many places Shoukou could be imprisoning his detractors? Don't go leaping before you look."
"But--" Youko started to say, when Koshou again took a hold of her arm.
"We have associates constantly keeping an eye on Shoukou. I think they'll know where that troublesome carriage ended up."
"We've been on his trail for three years. There's not a day that goes by when we don't know what the bastard's been up to."
"Koshou--you--" Youko scanned the faces of men in the dining hall, whose numbers had at some point swelled to a dozen or more. "You are--?"
If she'd thought it through, this was the conclusion she should have come to. There was no way Suzu's malice toward Shoukou would have abated in the least.
Koshou lightly clapped Youko on the back. "You're packing a helluva weapon there, but can it cut a wizard? Or should I ask, can you wield a sword that will cut a wizard?"
Youko smiled thinly. "To the bone."
Koshou sent off a messenger, who returned past midnight. Koshou looked at the people assembled in the main hall. "The carriage entered the prefectural castle. As you all know, of late, Shoukou hasn't left his official residence at the castle."
Youko glanced at the nodding faces. The faces of those willing and able to do what I cannot.
"We don't know why he brought Enho back to the prefectural castle. But that's how the man operates. He's definitely up to no good. If Enho still lives, then I want to rescue him."
The silence filled with a powerful feeling of mutual consent.
"In any case, I don't intend to wait much longer to get things rolling. That could mean tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow." Having spoken his mind, Koshou surveyed the crowd gathered in the main hall. "What say you?"
His question was answered with a shout of approval.
"Good!" Koshou said with a nod. "We have bided our time for three years. The moment has come to bring an end to Shoukou's rule!"
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
Part XVII (Chapter 64)
n the second year of Sekiraku, according to the calendar of the Kingdom of Kei, during the early dawn hours on the first day of February, one of the official residences of Shoukou, the governor of Shisui Prefecture, was attacked. The assailants, comprising some twenty citizens of Shisui Prefecture, shot fire arrows from the surrounding streets, scaled the walls, and fought their way into the inner sanctum. Yet the person of Shoukou was not found within.
After crossing swords with the residential guards, the assailants scrawled the characters Shu On on the walls. As soon as the city gates opened, they broke through the Horse Gate and fled. Pursued by provincials guardsmen, at least half their number slipped free and escaped to Ei Province.
Shoukou's full name was Seki On. Shoukou read the characters Shu On ("a special gift") as Chuu On ("the gift of execution"), expressing a desire for his assassination. In his indignation, he sent two hundred of his troops after the assailants and ordered five hundred more mustered from the surrounding territories to stand guard at the prefectural castle.
Just before these troops were scheduled to arrive at Takuhou, on the night of the first attack on the governor's residence, the granary in the center of the castle compound was attacked. Mere moments before the arrival of the praetorian guard assigned to Shoukou's personal protection detail and the provincial garrison at Takuhou, the assailants set fire to the granary and fled.
The fires were extinguished before the structure was consumed, yet the assailants again left behind the characters Shu On, and absconded to Ei Province. This time, approximately thirty individuals broke through the Horse Gate, half their number escaping capture and crossing the provincial border into Ei.
Clearly rogue elements were attempting to foment a rebellion. Suspecting another attack on the granary in the works, Shoukou assigned provincial guardsmen along with his praetorian guard to cordon off the granary. Three hundred praetorians were further dispatched to watch the roads and the borders. However, after two days, no assault had come. Early in the morning of the third day, Shoukou having let down his guard if only in the slightest, the attack came at his countryside estate east of Takuhou.
The assailants numbered a hundred. When the provincial guardsmen and praetorians stationed at the granary arrived at the estate, the forces inside and outside the estate fought to a standstill.
"I wonder if they're okay."
At the window of the brothel, Suzu looked in the direction of the Hare Gate. In the midst of the chaotic city, dusk was already falling.
"They'll be okay, as long as they've got Youshi," Koshou reassured her. He didn't offer any reasons, and Suzu took an uncertain breath. Koshou said, "I offered two hundred men, and Youshi said she could get the job done with a hundred. I'd say the odds are on their side."
Youshi had promised if they could capture Shoukou without killing him, she'd make it happen with a hundred.
"You need to be concerned for yourself, Suzu," Sekki said, as he strung a bow.
"I'll be okay," she'd replied. "After all, nobody can handle the sansui without me around."
"I'll leave Sekki to your care," Koshou said.
She nodded. "But what about you, Sekki? Can you draw a bow like that?"
"No problem. I don't have the best aim, but I'm not totally useless." He laughed nervously. "Do you know how they settle things when two kids applying to school come out the same in grades, character, and relative merits?"
"I don't. An archery contest, perhaps?"
"That's right. The best shot wins. So I did a lot of practicing."
Sekki wanted to become a government official. If he wished to make anything of himself in this kingdom, that was his first step, Sekki had the brains to succeed. In fact, he had an almost uncanny ability to read things right.
First, we send out twenty to get Shoukou all riled up.
These twenty had set fire to Shoukou's official residence on the inner loop road. Then hightailed it out of there. The next time, thirty struck the granary.
The granary was a warehouse that stored grain against times of famine. Setting it alight was a bold gesture on Sekki's part. "Our actual intent is not to burn it down," he explained. "And if by chance it should be consumed, Shoukou never had any intent on distributing it to the people, anyway."
But by doing so, Shoukou would have to post guards. And when the attackers fled, in a rage, they would chase after them. Shoukou would recall the constabulary from the surrounding districts and harden defenses around the castle.
That's what Sekki predicted, and that's exactly what happened.
"Next, we raid his countryside estate with two hundred men, who will barricade themselves inside the walls. Eventually the provincial guard will be called in."
Based on the precedents established after the previous two incidents, Shoukou would dispatch his praetorian guard to where Wa borders Ei Province. As the previous attackers had numbered twenty and thirty respectively, when two hundred rebels showed up in force, he would conclude that he now had the measure of their entire contingent. The possibility was high that the inflamed Shoukou would redeploy his forces from the castle perimeter to his personal manse.
And in fact, two battalions of provincial guardsmen and half as many praetorians surrounded the estate, with another battalion manning the blockades along the highways. Left in Takuhou were five hundred constables and five hundred of Shoukou's personal security detail. Of them, in the afternoon, half were ordered to the estate, and those remaining were dispersed to stand watch in the city, guard the prefectural castle, and protect the granary.
Koshou raised his sword, and then lightly planted the tip in the earth. The long blade glimmered. "There should be two hundred or so fools left in the castle." Suzu turned to him when he spoke. "Watch out for the crossbows. With your back against the sky, you'll stand out like a sore thumb."
Suzu grasped her short sword and nodded. They and their more than 800 compatriots assaulting the castle possessed no satisfactory defenses.
"We'll see you later, I guess?"
Outside the window, the dusk was falling. The few left behind watched Suzu and her party leave the brothel. They and a few dozen others scattered throughout the city still had things to do that needed to get done.
"It's getting dark."
Youko wiped the falling dew from the blade and looked at the sky beyond the tower gates. Like Shoukou's own elevated pride, the ramparts surrounding his estate were surprisingly high. He was apparently possessed of the conviction that not even the treetops in his carefully groomed arbor should be seen by the hoi polloi.
Of the hundred-odd armed farmers and citizen-soldiers with her, by and large the majority of them were still in fine fettle. They were well protected by the bulwarks and watchtowers that Shoukou himself had built.
"The sun is down," Youko said. "They'll be coming over the walls." A man arming his crossbow next to her nodded. She said, "Retreat toward the main hall, link up with them there, and then regroup."
The man warily slid his gaze across the perimeter, and started back toward the main hall. The others followed after him in twos and threes.
Bringing up the rear, Youko said as if to herself, "Hankyo--"
Yes, came the whisper of his voice.
"After this, I'll leave the rest up to the shirei." She had borrowed from Keiki every shirei he could spare.
"You should escape to the Imperial Palace and muster the Imperial Army."
"Do you think what Keiki could not achieve I would be able to accomplish?"
Dismiss Shoukou, she had demanded of him. Or else mobilize the Ei Provincial Guard. Neither request had been honored. The ministers wanted details about why she wanted to dismiss Shoukou. A letter dispatched with Hankyou, carrying the Imperial Seal, proved similarly useless. Ultimately, her request to mobilize even the Ei Provincial Guard was refused.
"Prepare for the worst. We only have ourselves to rely on. Fly with the night and reduce the enemies' numbers as much as possible."
"Is this your desire, Empress?"
Youko replied with a bitter smile. "You have my permission."
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
17-2 The provincial castle compound had four gates. Of the four, the main or southern gate was also called the Phoenix Gate. The sentries at the Phoenix Gate suddenly found themselves confronted by several hundred citizens of Takuhou. Horrified, they watched as this mass of humanity flooded across the drawbridge toward them, brandishing weapons. The sentries frantically began to close the castle gates, which had been left open that night to allow ministers and soldiers free passage in and out of the castle grounds.
The mounted knight leading the mob reached the gate before it closed and swiftly dispatched the sentries. The gates were opened wide, and the armed civilians rushed the lookouts above the gate.
Archers posted at the merlons found themselves hamstrung by the sheer height and excessive ornamentation of the parapet walls, all built as a sop to Shoukou's vanity. The main gates were at least thirty meters high. Already, because of the height of gates and the failing light, it was impossible to discriminate friend from foe in the shadows. Moreover, turrets that should have afforded a clear lookout constituted little more than architectural embellishments, and faced the outside of the gate with severely compromised fields of view.
At any rate, blindly firing their crossbows, they had no idea whether they were hitting anything or not. As it took time to rearm the crossbows, they were overrun before they could get off three arrows each. Seconds later, they had no choice but surrender. Not surprisingly, the warning fires were extinguished without an acknowledged reply, as if the posted sentry had stepped out to take care of business and didn't bother returning.
A contingent of castle guards ran along the wall walks, stampeding into the castle. Praetorians scattered here and there tried to raise the alarm. Most of them were cut down by the arrows and fell futilely in the dust.
The temporarily opened gates swallowed up the citizens of Takuhou and then closed.
"Lower the portcullis!"
Accompanying the cry, a block and tackle at the base of the watchtower began to move. The thick, single panel inside the gates noisily descended toward the tracks in the roadway under the gate. Suzu watched from the dark tunnel closed off by the gate to make sure the portcullis fell squarely into place in the channels, and then caught up with the crowd already running to middle gate that closed off the inner court.
They had only crossed a short distance when the middle gate was closed and the sound of the descending portcullis rang out. The castle guards inside shut the gate with their own self-defense in mind. Normally, inner court gates were simply constructed. The walls surrounding the inner court were as well only a taller, thicker variety of the walls that surrounded a typical domicile. Connected in a single span to the main castle walls, the appearance of the inner gate, which lacked the typical main and auxiliary entrances, again put Shoukou's aesthetic tastes on full display.
Suzu looked back at the sound of Koshou's voice. She reached and Koshou grasped her hand. As soon as he vaulted onto the back of the sansui, Suzu barked out a command to the bucking sansui and it launched itself into the air.
The sansui easily scaled the walls. Koshou jumped off before its feet touched the wall walk. Suzu swung the sansui around and set it down outside the gate. She made five trips carrying men over the wall. On the sixth, a cry of exultation arose from the gate turrets.
"Good job!" shouted Koshou, and turned to the sixth man alighting from the sansui. "Open the inner gate! Suzu, direct everybody to the inner court!"
The gate was opening inwards by the time the sansui returned to the threshold of the gate. She saw the portcullis in front of the gates raising up, and further beyond a clutch of constables on the run.
"Sekki! Climb on!" Suzu urged him from astride the sansui.
Sekki bent his bow and let an arrow fly in the direction of the middle gate. Then he nodded and ran over to her. Suzu reached out her hand. He wrapped his hand around hers and she pulled him onto the sansui's back. The sansui neighed with obvious irritation. Suzu patted his neck to calm it down. "That's a good boy, that's a good boy. Don't be so disagreeable. Sekki, are you all right?"
"I'm okay," came his voice behind her. "Suzu, when I give you the signal, lean forward in the saddle. I don't want to hit you when I fire the bow."
"Got it." Suzu spurred on the sansui. When they passed through the gate, Koshou raised himself to his full height and thrust his broadsword into the air. "If all our number are here, then close the gates! Onto Shoukou's quarters!"
The answering cries shook the ground.
People ran along the wall walks, weapons raised, breaking down the doors of the turrets and guardrooms along the way.
Confident that their comrades occupying the ramparts had their backs, they overwhelmed the onrushing praetorians. The men accompanying Suzu charged into the depths of the prefectural offices. In the innermost heart of the castle they found themselves facing Shoukou's official castle residence.
Every time Sekki said to jump, Suzu nimbly launched the sansui into the air. From the elevated vantage point, they could take in the full extent of the panic gripping the compound. People rushing in and people running for their lives, all crashing about in extreme disarray. The overwhelming majority comprised those fleeing the scene, but Sekki pointed out that they likely anticipated the arrival of the provincial guardsmen and praetorians currently racing toward the city.
"Will they really come?"
"For sure. But with our allies manning the ramparts and guarding the gates, it will take them some time. If we can capture Shoukou before then, they may well lose the will to carry on the fight." Sekki yelled at the top of his lungs, "Suzu!"
Suzu glanced ahead of the sansui's landing area and caught her breath. Two sentries wielding battle axes awaited them. The sansui couldn't launch itself again without touching ground, and there wasn't time to turn aside.
The blades flashed at the sansui.
She instinctively shut her eyes, barely managing to swallow the scream that came to her lips. The sansui bellowed. The next sound was the heavy thud of the collision. They hit the ground. The sansui's descent came to a halt.
At the sound of Sekki's voice, Suzu opened her eyes. The two sentries lay sprawled before them.
"You saved us!"
"I only took out one of them," said Youshi. "Your sansui kicked the other one into next week. That's one smart animal."
"And the estate?" There was not the slightest hint of relief in Sekki's voice.
"They're hanging in there. They were doing such a good job holding the fort, I left things in their hands for the time being."
"Holding the fort--"
In contrast to Sekki's tone of voice, Youshi's was rather cheerful. "I'd estimate that we've reduced the troop strength of those heading our way by at least half."
The two battalions (1000 soldiers) and five hundred praetorians surrounding Shoukou's country estate were in complete disarray. Despite all the watch fires lit, places remained in darkness. And in that darkness, something moved.
The enemy barricaded inside the main hall of the estate in front of them was not the problem.
Screams burst forth from the darkness, and when they ran to see they found their fallen comrades wailing pitifully, deep wounds in their limbs, wounds that had been inflicted by no moral weapon, but resembled the teeth and claw marks left by beasts. Yet they caught no sight of whatever creature had caused them.
All they knew was that something was out there, and there were many of them. Fear seized them until they quailed at the sound of their own footsteps.
They began to retreat in ones and twos. When the arrows ceased to fly, they realized that they were now too far from the main hall for a bow to reach. The order had not come to withdraw, but no soldier had any desire to hold that ground. They whimpered and cried like children. Accustomed to preying on the weak, they had no experience going against an enemy whose fear of them was so much less than their own fear of the darkness.
"The prefectural castle is under attack!"
At the height of the tension, the word raced through the rank and file. Profound feelings of relief gripped all the soldiers equally. The battalion commanders were no exception.
"What is going on!"
"Hundreds of armed civilians have stormed the castle!"
Thin smiles showed on the faces of the battalion commanders as they conversed together: "We're walking into a trap here. We'd better go back." They shouted in voices that might have sounded a tad too enthusiastic, "Return to the castle!!"
Like a dam breaking, the soldiers stamped toward the Hare Gate. The number of troops abandoning their positions and pouring like a tidal wave through the gate were at least half of their original strength.
Left behind where they had fallen in the darkened countryside, the cries of the wounded still called out for rescue.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
17-3 With Koshou flanking her, Youko advanced on the keep of the provincial castle.
Every now and then, they'd cross swords with a castle guard or sentry barreling around a corner, shrieking bloody murder. Youko glanced at Koshou. Koshou wielded his broadsword in a furious manner. The blade of the sword was tipped with a thick, barbed fluke instead of a regular spear point. The weapon itself must weigh more than a hundred pounds. His ability to keep knocking the enemy about with it was a feat worthy of admiration.
By simply swinging the broadsword at a charging enemy, its hundred-plus pound mass alone would shatter his opponent's bones. The sheer force generated when he flung the sword out to the side flattened armor like a swatted fly. In that manner he warded off any attackers who came at them from the rear.
Every swing of Koshou's sword was met with a ghastly shriek in return.
"Incredible," Youko muttered to herself.
Koshou laughed and glanced over his shoulder. "You're no ordinary person yourself."
"I'm not doing anything so extraordinary."
"Then how'd a pretty young thing like you get used to so much death?" As they ran down a hallway, Koshou's breathing told her he was close behind.
"Long story," Youko replied with a thin smile. I fought the pretender's army. And fighting meant killing. If she had faltered then, her supporters would have died. She couldn't very well have hidden behind the backs of those protecting her, fearing soiling her own hands with blood.
In any case, a throne is a thing purchased with blood. That is what the Royal En told her. Even had she received the throne from Heaven without shedding a drop, it would have been impossible to hold onto it without the rivers flowing red. The pretender's army would still have to be vanquished, internal rebellion crushed, criminals executed.
One way or the other, better not to be a coward.
"Youshi!" came Suzu's cry, as the sansui soared over the roof and landed in the courtyard.
Youko sensed murderous intent to her right and crouched down. She heard the sound of enemy armor and a slashing attack whistled over her head. She answered in the same direction, reaching out to parry and thrust in return. Against this weapon--that could pierce the toughest youma--the armor was so much tissue paper. The sword bisected the enemy like a hot knife through butter. She yanked it out and whipped it around, flinging the gore off the blade. Not a drop adhered to the shining steel.
"That sword is some piece of work," said Koshou, with a grim smile.
At the back of her thoughts, Youko heard a voiceless whisper. Hankyo-- She didn't have to ask if he'd returned. Go! she told him. Get to where Shoukou is and cull the enemy's forces.
There was no reply, but Youko knew that her orders had been delivered.
When Suzu's squad arrived at the castle keep, for reasons unknown, the grounds before the governor's residence were awash with blood. Suzu reflexively brought her hand to her mouth.
Koshou raced up behind her. "How did this happen?"
"Our allies must have gotten here first," was Youko's quick explanation, as she jumped over the corpses. She was breathing hard but her steps were steady.
"Huh---" said Koshou, with a befuddled expression, casting a puzzled glance at the corpses. He planted himself beside the door. The voices of the men bringing up the rear fell to a hush.
Koshou delivered a single blow with the broadsword. The thick wood splintered. The rest of the assault group piled on, and a second and then third attack rent it in two. The tip of Koshou's sword still embedded in the wood, door collapsed inward.
The building appeared empty, quiet as death. There was no sign of any human presence. Bodies were strewn across the floor as if cut down in the middle of a conversation. They opened doors here and there, checking every nook and cranny and then ran toward the inner sanctum. At the very heart, across from the open door, the figure of a man huddled in the corner of the room.
The people entering the room momentarily froze in place.
Suzu dismounted from the sansui was following hard on Youko's heels. She also stopped in her tracks.
The man crouched down, trying to crawl under the divan in the gorgeously-arrayed room. He had a blanket pulled over his head, yet the mound of cloth could be clearly seen for what it was. And as the mound itself was the size of the divan, how he was going to fit under the divan was anybody's guess. And even a child knew better than to leave his nose poking out from the folds. The round, lumpy mound trembled.
Koshou acted first. He approached the man and grabbed the blanket. A strangled scream reverberated from beneath the layers of cloth.
The scream came from a tremendously fat man. His age was difficult to determine. That's how tremendously obese the man was. An eternity of gluttony had left him hardly a man but a strange species of creature.
Koshou tossed the blanket to the side. Half-buried in the mass of flesh, the small, animal-like, beady eyes looked up at Koshou, suffused with fear.
"Shoukou, I presume," Koshou stated flatly.
"No, no, no!" the man shrieked.
"Who else in Takuhou could be mistaken for the likes of you?"
People poured into the room, surrounded him. Among them was Suzu, who reached into her tunic, to where the sword rested against her racing heart. She firmly grasped the hilt.
This is Shoukou.
Her hand trembled. She drew the sword from its sheath.
The man who killed Seishuu.
Youshi spoke in a low voice. Suzu started, her eyes wide in surprise. When she looked back over her shoulder, Youshi shook her head, no. She lightly patted Suzu on the arm and then pressed through the ring or people, who all stood there as if frozen in place.
"So you're Shoukou."
"No, I'm not!"
"What did you do with Enho?"
"If you can deliver Enho alive, we may spare your life for the time being."
The man little eyes nervously flitted back and fro.
"On the other hand, if you wish to die, I will accommodate your desires." She drew her sword. The man frantically backed away. He looked like a fat bear trying to scratch his back on the divan.
"Really? You're really going to help me?"
"You have my word."
Youko looked up at Koshou. With a bewildered expression, he looked back and forth between Youko and Shoukou. He closed his eyes and sighed. "Now you're making promises like that. He's all yours, then."
Youko replied with a slight nod. She knelt down in front of Shoukou. "Out with it. Where's Enho?"
"H-he's n-not h-here."
The man raised a quavering hand, his stubby forefinger tracing a crooked circle in the air. "Meikaku. I know nothing. The Marquis of Wa asked me to. So I sent him to Meikaku."
"Gahou? Why would Gahou want to kidnap Enho?"
"I was told to kill him. Because he was a survivor of the Evergreen Seminary. That's what he said. I ordered the raid, but didn't kill him. The fools brought him here. When I informed the Marquis, he said to deliver Enho to him."
"So he is still alive?"
"I didn't kill him. Truly."
Youko glanced behind her, at the flustered and perplexed faces looking down at them. "I understand the malice in your hearts, but please discipline yourselves for now. This man is tied to Gahou. If he is killed and Gahou escapes, all will be for naught."
His knowledge of the depraved lengths to which the Wa Province Lord had gone made Shoukou a vital link.
A man standing next to Koshou cast his eyes up toward the heavens and heaved a big sigh. Taking that as a signal, the room shook with jeers of derision. Some crying out in scorn, a few others quietly holding back tears of despair.
The room once again fell into silence and the human cordon around Shoukou dispersed. Dejected, shoulders drooping, they exited the room. Behind them, Koshou suddenly scraped the tip of his broadsword against the floor.
"The provincial guard is coming! This is no time to get complacent!"
At once, his crestfallen comrades were seized by the warrior spirit. After the requisite disrespectful glances at Shoukou, they snapped out of it, lifted their heads proudly, and marched out of the room.
Suzu continued to stare at Shoukou. He was nothing but a frightened, stupid-looking man. Her malice for him was deep, but that malice was hers alone. Not even Seishuu had shared it when he died. If Seishuu had spoken any words of revenge in his final moments, she would have killed him no matter what Youshi said.
"You killed a child in Takuhou."
Shoukou shuddered violently, like a wounded bird.
Suzu balled her hands into fists as she turned on her heels. "And I will never forget it."
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
17-4 The soldier arrived at a gallop in the middle of the night. After counting the dead hanging from the walls across the mote, he'd come to the conclusion that the castle defenders had given up the fight.
A nearby vassal looked up and said, "Meaning--"
Astride his horse, the battalion commander nodded. "Meaning the rebels have control of the keep."
The castle grounds were still as death. Rugged gates and thick walls guarded the prefectural offices. When the provincial guard had arrived, the castle was already in the control of the rebels. They would have no choice but to directly challenge these formidable defenses. Even if they broke through, what they had come to defend was likely no longer there.
"Tell them to cease fighting and pull back. Launching an offensive now would be meaningless."
"But the praetorians--"
The commander's gaze fell upon the praetorians, who were feverishly readying themselves for a charge upon the main gates. "Give them fair warning as well. In any case, the rebels will have already found their quarry. Say that I'm ordering them to cease engaging and withdraw because the person who would call them to account likely no longer draws breath."
He knew that the zeal of the praetorians had little to do with honor or loyalty, but sprang forth from fear. If they pleased Shoukou, they won whatever rewards they could imagine. But if they displeased him in the least, they would be dispatched without mercy. Those who served Shoukou knew this better than any.
"Retreat and regroup. Pitch camp at the West Gate. We'll rest until dawn and await reinforcements from Meikaku. The rebels may attempt to flee before then. Capture anyone who attempts to leave the castle. If they resist, do not hesitate to employ deadly force."
Most of the praetorians within the castle grounds had been killed or had given up. Any remaining ministers had immediately surrendered. They were gathered together and locked inside the buildings. The remaining bodies of the praetorians were hung from the castle walls.
The provincial guard posted outside the castle walls pulled back and formed a battle line outside the West Gate. They settled in and awaited the dawn.
"Well, now what?"
From the guard tower, Koshou looked east, surveying the scene before the Blue Dragon Gate. The guard towers were squat stone structures built at critical junctures along the parapets. The towers projected over the inner and outer portions of the castle wall, studded with merlons and crenels from which firing positions could be established, and thick doors and walls facing the wall walks to the left and right. Such a vantage point offered a clear view of both the interior and exterior of the castle from which fire could be directed at the enemy. Closing the doors cut off access to the wall walks.
"If we don't move first," said Sekki, "we'll have no choice but to break through their lines and make a run for it." He peeked through a catapult crenel at the city beyond.
"Sure seems that way. Things are quiet around here."
The external environs of the castle seemed asleep, but no one was sleeping. Uneasy groups of people here and there, people returning to report after cautiously checking out the state of the prefectural castle. That the rebels had control of the castle could be ascertained from the bodies hanging from the walls. But more than that, what would they do next?
"Well, what are we going to do?" Youko asked Sekki.
Sekki shook his head. "Whatever we decide upon, we've got to act before dawn. Once it becomes light, we will find ourselves at a distinctive disadvantage."
"Could we retreat with Shoukou as our hostage?"
"Shoukou does have some value as a hostage. Other than that, if the citizens of Takuhou don't rise to our defense, there's not much hope for us. One battalion of provincial guards and close to five hundred praetorians are guarding the border with Ei Province. If we can't create enough chaos in Takuhou to entice them back here, we'll be left with no escape route. And the provincial guards stationed at Meikaku are currently marching from the east."
"And to the north?" Ken Province could be reached by crossing the mountains to the north.
"Our only option there would be to reach the mountains in twos and threes and make our way to Ken. We know what's coming if we remain in Wa. Our only recourse is to flee to a neighboring province. Yet Gahou could put an end to that option by asking the Province Lord of Ken to mobilize his guard units. By the time we crossed the mountains, news of the rebellion would have preceded us, and the Ken Provincial Guard would be waiting for us."
"So it's Ei Province or nothing."
"Yeah," Sekki said with a nod. "The Taiho's duchy across the river remains our best bet." He looked hopefully out at the sleeping city.
A knock at a door and a small voice whispered, "The prefectural castle has fallen."
Voices full of surprise echoed back and forth. Then silence.
The opportunity had come to liberate Takuhou, some argued strenuously. "How many people have been killed so far? If we don't act now and prove to the powers that be that we're no cowards, after Shoukou is gone we'll be saddled with another like him."
"The next governor may be worse than this one."
"Shoukou doesn't rule the kingdom. That's a lesson they need to learn."
"Yeah, they need to know that no beast will govern us, at least in Shisui."
The voices were cut off by the sound of a closing door. In ones and twos, downcast men gathered in the southwest corner of the city.
"How'd it go?"
"Not well. Nothing but cowards in this city."
"Nobody seemed happy even hearing that the castle had fallen. They still all have that constipated look on their faces."
"No matter what happens, they'll invent some reason to be afraid. It's soaked into their bones."
"Do they think if they make of themselves a small enough target, the arrows won't find them? That's how they plan to live out the rest of their lives?"
"So what do we do then?"
A hush fell upon the darkened streets as the whispers ceased.
"If it only comes down to us, we're going to help--"
"Somehow we've got to help make good their escape."
The night sky began to brighten.
"This is bad," a quiet voice said.
Suzu turned and looked at Sekki. They were standing on the wall walk next to the watchtower atop the gate. The darkness had already lifted enough to make out people's faces in the dim light.
Acknowledging Suzu's gaze, Sekki laughed nervously. "We can't afford to wait. Daybreak is coming."
A deathly still fell upon the wall walk. Koshou took a deep breath.
"After this, we'll never see Shisui again. It may not be much, but we brought down Shoukou a few pegs. No matter what, he's going to have to account for the chaos that occurred here. Let's just leave it at that."
Dejected sighs filled the air.
"What now, Sekki?"
"Distribute the minimum necessary provisions from the storehouse. Then head straight north into the mountains."
"Escape to Ken Province?"
"That's our only recourse. Honestly speaking, if we turn toward the west, in the time it will take us to engage the provincial guard waiting for us, the guard from Meikaku will have caught up with us."
"No good. The distance is too great. The cavalry would overtake us before we made it to a neighboring province. There's no way we can compete with soldiers on horseback. No, going north is our only option."
From the start, they had no defense against the airborne cavalry riding pegasi. The provincial guard had few air cavalry, Sekki said, and they'd had no choice but to gamble that such a rare asset would be held back in reserve.
"We'll break through in the north, where no battalion commanders are stationed. It may not be much, but troop moral cannot be high."
Including the wounded, at least seven hundred had made it this far--more than any of them expected. But Koshou and the rest of them could only count it as a defeat, the citizens of the city not having come to their aid. After this, they had no choice but to run for the hills.
Everybody seemed to understand this. Heavily armed men hung their heads in frustration.
"Well, then!" Koshou declared in a clear, loud voice. "So the citizens of Takuhou are nothing but cowards! Look around, and that is how many are not. In short, we are the only people left in Shisui with real heart. And we had the gall to all gather here together!"
A ripple of laugher arose from the downcast crowds.
"We did it once, and we can do it again! We'll make good our escape!" With this cry, Koshou rallied their assembled forces.
"He really is something," Suzu heard Youshi mutter to herself. When she turned to her, Youshi smiled. "A little speech like that, and Koshou renews their fighting spirits. Incredible. He'd make a good general."
"Indeed," Youshi laughed.
At that moment, Suzu heard the sound of wings overhead.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love