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Post Reply A Thousand Leagues of Wind, The Sky at Dawn
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Chapter 68

17-5 Suzu flung back her head. There in the gray sky above, she caught a glimpse of a dark shadow, the silhouette of great wings.

A bird.

"No, a pegasus!"

The crowds dissolved into panic.

"The air cavalry!"

"Sekki!" Koshou roared.

Suzu looked for Sekki and saw that he was already bending his bow. The arrow flew into the sky and was swallowed up by the black shadow. A second later a spear shot down at him.

"Sekki!" They all shouted. Suzu was paralyzed with fear. Koshou and Youshi reached for him. Youshi gave him a shove and Koshou yanked him out of the way just in time. The spear planted itself in the wall walk where Sekki had been standing the moment before. The cries of relief and terror mingled together.

"To the guard tower!"

At the sound of Koshou's voice, they rushed to the guard tower doors. Suzu grasped the reins of the sansui. A spear pierced its neck. Suzu screamed. The sansui toppled over, its weight dragging her along, the whiplash in the reins flinging her to the side. She drew painful breaths as Koshou grabbed her by the arms and hoisted her up. Another spear plunged into the ground at their feet.

"Yeah, those provincial guards are in a different league," Koshou grunted, pushing Suzu toward the closest guard tower. "Get in there! Look after Sekki!"

Nodding, Suzu stared at the heavens, overcome with feelings of hopelessness. The swarm of pegasi darted to and across the breaking dawn sky. She couldn't tell how many. The spears and arrows fell like rain. The trueness of their aim made it clear they were the elite of the elite.

"You too, Koshou. Come on!" Suzu grabbed his arm.

They didn't have the weapons to shoot down the air cavalry. Arrows began to fly from the roof of the guard tower, but there was otherwise no defense against an airborne enemy.

"I can't believe the air cavalry was mobilized!"

"Please, let's go in!"

Suzu shoved him with all her might toward the guard tower. As soon as they stepped inside the thick doors, she saw another flock of pegasi flitting through the air. She estimated fifteen. However, just as one mounted knight was the equal of eight infantrymen, one air cavalryman was a match for twenty grunts.

Uttering a string of oaths, Koshou ducked into the guard tower. The empty room contained only the block and tackle mechanism for hoisting the portcullis. Koshou ran through the room and climbed the stairs, scrambling to the top floor of third level above the main gate.

"Suzu!"

Following on Koshou's heels, no sooner had Suzu reached the top floor but she found a crossbow pointed straight at her. Sekki quickly aimed it elsewhere and tossed her a bolt. "Arm it for me," he said.

Suzu nodded. She placed her foot in the stirrup at the nose of the crossbow and pulled up on the cord with all her might. Then she laid the bolt in the groove and handed it back to Sekki. She picked up a spent crossbow and similarly loaded a bolt and passed it to one of the soldiers firing through the crenels at the air cavalry.

Alongside them, men were shifting the platform of a crossbow-like catapult that faced the exterior of the gate. Following Koshou's shouted commands, another group of men raised shield walls to protect themselves from descending projectiles and crossfire.

The large main room of the guard tower was made of stone. No walls faced outside or inside the gate. Instead, the room was enclosed by a ring of columns that formed the merlons and crenels, leaving the room otherwise completely open along its two lengths. They took axes and hacked away at the architectural flourishes to widen the field of view for the archers, and then set up temporary shield walls covering the gaping rectangular apertures that otherwise were protected only by the merlons and overhanging eaves. From between the gaps, the dark city of Takuhou spread out beneath their gaze. The sky was barely light enough to discern the outlines of the city.

They were not completely without hope. They'd figured out how to aim the large catapult. Even without hitting the target, its presence drove the air cavalry away from the guard tower. Now the cavalry repeatedly charged and pulled back.

"Damn and blast, but they're fast!" Suzu heard Koshou cursing. He'd missed. With the shield walls in place, their exterior view was obstructed as well.

"We're out of bolts!"

The cry came from the men grouped around the catapult. The weapon didn't shoot ordinary arrows, but projectiles as long and as heavy as spears, that could slam straight through a building. They'd exhausted their supply.

"We've still got crossbows. Use them and your longbows. You've got pikes, don't you?"

Someone shouted behind them, "Koshou!"

As they turned, the shield wall at the back of the guard tower blew inwards. Splinters of wood rained down around them. Outside the gaping hole was a pegasus, its coat the color of red copper.

"Don't let them board us!"

With the attack concentrated on their forward positions, they'd neglected the rear. If pressure were brought to bear here, it'd all be over. Once they could no longer lay down covering fire, the air cavalry would swoop down upon them. Sekki was closest. He spun around and readied his bow. Youshi drew her sword and started running.

Two figures were astride the pegasus. One bore a spear. He jumped off the back of the pegasus, vaulted over the parapets, and somersaulted to the floor. Suzu focused her attention on the pegasus. It was a kitsuryou. She recognized the rider.

Suzu leapt forward. "Sekki! Youshi! Stop!"

At the reins of the kitsuryou was a young woman.

"It's Shoukei!"

As if recognizing the sound of Suzu's voice, the head of the kitsuryou turned back. The flowing mane glimmered red in the first rays of light from the east. Suzu ran toward the crenels.

Shoukei called out, "Hey! Suzu!"

Suzu glanced over her shoulder at Koshou. "They're not our enemies! I met her at Rou's place!"

Suzu sidled up to hole in the shield wall and peaked out. The beautiful striped horse sailed right up next to her. The rider leaned forward. "Suzu! Are you all right?"

"Shoukei! How did you get here?"

Shoukei held out her right hand and pointed straight ahead.

"What?"

Suzu leaned over the wall. Shoukei pointed east down the main boulevard, toward the Blue Dragon Gate where the provincial guard was bivouacked. Throngs of people were pouring off the street.

"That's--"

Shoukei waved to her and then dropped down, weaving the kitsuryou in and out of the shadows between the buildings, flying north. Watching her leave, Suzu sensed someone standing at her side. She looked up. It was the man who had jumped off the back of the kitsuryou.

"You're Suzu?"

"Yes. And you are?"

The man gave her a charming smile. "I'm Kantai. I guess you could call me a colleague of Shoukei's."

Suzu looked eastward. "And they are--?"

Koshou leaned out over the wall to see what she had seen. "Your comrades in arms?"

"They arrived before the main body of the provincial guard. Jolly well done, I say." Kantai laughed. "Five thousand strong."
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Part XVIII (Chapter 69)


n the streets of Meikaku, the capital city of Wa Province, rumors abounded of strange goings-on in Takuhou in Shisui Prefecture. Having heard the same from her friends, after completing the shopping she'd been sent to do, Shoukei rushed home.

"Did you hear, Kantai?"

Standing in the center of an assembled group, Kantai nodded. "Yes, Takuhou. It appears that someone has been so audacious to set fire to Shoukou's residence." He grinned. "Shu On was a brilliant stroke. Our colleagues in Takuhou have their game together."

"I wonder if they'll be okay."

Kantai thought it over, saying neither yea nor nay. "The word is the assailants have already fled. They attacked the residence, and then escaped Takuhou before the gates were opened. Half their number made it across the border into Ei Province. However, the man himself wasn't at the castle compound."

"Wasn't he their objective, then?"

"That's what makes it such a strange story. We have allies in Takuhou who have Shoukou in their sights. They've gone so far as to amass winter weapons, so I have to believe this is part of a greater plan of insurrection. Maybe those fled after missing their target."

"Perhaps," Shoukei nodded. She couldn't believe the people who had collected those thirty winter weapons would have only gone so far and no further. "Maybe it's a completely different group. Not our friends in Takuhou."

"Hard to say," Kantai agreed. "But if this is their work, Shoukou's not going to just let it blow over."

"Eh?"

"If nothing else, they're not idiots."



The next day, Shoukei was preparing breakfast when Kantai suddenly called out for everybody to gather in the main hall. There she saw that all the mercenaries had gathered, along with Saibou.

"What's going on?" she asked, and was told to wait until everybody else had arrived. After biding her time there for a while, the arrival of three "merchants" she didn't know was the signal for the doors to close.

Kantai got to his feet. "A messenger pigeon arrived this morning from Takuhou. Shortly before dawn, the castle granary was attacked. The granary was set alight, and the attackers fled to Ei Province. They were from the same group who left the aforementioned Shu On."

A murmur of conversation ran through the room.

"Our colleagues in Takuhou know what they're doing. Their true intent is to sow discord."

"What kind of--" Shoukei queried in a quiet voice.

Kantai nodded. "The group that raided Shoukou's residence yesterday did not err in failing to seize Shoukou. Only twenty attacked the residence, made a big deal of leaving the characters Shu On behind, and fled to Ei Province. Both teams having made their getaway to Ei, about now Shoukou is really getting incensed. This is not the kind of man who can deal with such a provocation with any sense of humor."

"Yes, I know, but--"

"Shoukou will surely order the garrisoned guardsmen and his praetorians to secure the border. They'll increase surveillance of the citizenry and will try to ferret out the rebels. The rebels' clear intent is to disperse Shoukou's defenses."

Shoukei couldn't follow everything she was being told. She scanned the audience and found she wasn't alone.

"There are three battalions of 1500 men garrisoned at the prefectural castle, one thousand praetorians, and five hundred archers. Three thousand soldiers. Without the matching troop strength necessary to win a head-on attack, they're doing what I would do. Get Shoukou riled up, get him to dilute his troop strength, and as much as possible reduce the force presence at the prefectural castle. I don't know how many troops have been sent to track down the brigands, but in any case, an appropriate number of soldiers must be garrisoned at the castle, and Shoukou will no doubt be recalling troops deployed in neighboring counties."

"But won't that end up increasing troop strength?"

"It will take two or three days to recall the troops. That's when they must act. They'll spring another decoy outside Takuhou, enrage Shoukou, draw away more soldiers, and then rush the castle."

The room fell into a dead silence.

"Even if it hadn't come to my attention that our colleagues were amassing a stockpile of winter weapons, it'd strike me as a doable plan. But they have to raise an army before the praetorians return. They probably have no more than three days. To draw away the provincial guard, they're going to have to devote a convincing number to the decoy, who will have to stick it out just long enough. After that, they'll charge the castle with everything they've got left."

Shoukei caught her breath. How would Suzu fare? What role would she play? Would she remain unscathed? Would she come through it okay?

"However, they don't know the full story," said Kantai. Shoukei leaned forward and Kantai continued. "Shoukou and Gahou are joined at the hip. If Shoukou was a run-of-the-mill regional administrator, Gahou wouldn't lift a finger to help him. The arrival of the guard would be delayed, and only a minor contingent would be dispatched. There'd be no reason to cover for an administrator the people found so disagreeable that they'd resort to violence. Yet knowing all this, Gahou will continue to succor Shoukou. To put in other words, Gahou's trained Shoukou like a pet to do his dirty work for him."

Kantai paused and then said, "In short, Shoukou knows where the bodies are buried. If the conflict stretches out without immediate resolution, the kingdom may get involved and things would get complicated. If, by chance, Shoukou is captured and placed in the dock, he won't go down quietly. Gahou is already readying a large army. He'll stop at nothing to suppress this uprising. Our colleagues, who will have their arms full with just three thousand defenders, haven't got a chance."

A stir of conversation filled the meeting hall.

"We shall ride to the support our Shu On brethren!" Kantai declared. "And while we're at it, we'll cause a little mischief of our own."

"What kind of mischief?" someone asked, and Kantai flashed a guileless smile. "Well, to put down the Shu On Rebellion--as we shall call it--the provincial guard will take one or two days to reach Takuhou. Meikaku will empty out in the meantime. Why we let this opportunity slip through our fingers?"

"Ahh--" went the murmur through the room.

Kantai beckoned to the three "merchants." He said, "I'm giving you the opportunity to remove the stigma from your names. Together with your followers, set forth to Takuhou. Be sure to arrive before the provincial guard."

The stigma? Shoukei puzzled, but the men answered in unison: "Yes!"

Kantai turned to Saibou, man seated in front of a display cabinet. "And how shall we proceed?"

Saibou thought it over for a moment. He looked at Kantai and said, "Leave Meikaku to me. You go to Takuhou."

Kantai smiled. "Cat's out of the bag, eh?"

"I know you have a fondness for hotheads like that bunch. However, I'm asking you to start a war. As soon as your men are provisioned, set forth for Takuhou. Our objective is not Gahou's assassination, but to make the Empress aware that something is rotten in Wa Province. Don't turn this into a do-or-die effort. Lose if you must. I'll figure something out afterward."

"Thank you!"

Shoukei raised her voice. "I want to go to Takuhou too."

"Oh?" Saibou looked at her.

"A friend of mine is in Takuhou, fighting alongside the Shu On Rebels. Please allow me."

Saibou nodded. "Shoukei, you said your name was? Can you ride a pegasus?"

"I can."

"Then accompany Kantai. Go and assist those brave souls."

Shoukei bowed deeply. "I won't disappoint you!"
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Chapter 70

18-2 "Just how many--!" exclaimed Koshou, as Shoukei explained how they had come to be here. She'd returned with the five thousand citizen soldiers, escorting them into the castle. Koshou finally got to ask his original question: "How many men do you have left in Meikaku?"

Shoukei looked at Kantai, and Kantai smiled mischievously. "Twice the number we sent here."

The uproar momentarily filled the calm guard tower.

When the onslaught came from every direction in the brightening dawn, the few hundred remaining provincial guard encamped at the West Gate couldn't surrender fast enough. Kantai's irregulars whittled the air calvary down to half their original number and forced them to withdraw. Suffused with the rays of the morning sun, the castle compound filled with ringing cheers. But this was not the end of things. The rest of provincial army was scheduled to arrive the day after tomorrow.

"Unfortunately, we've got to keep the provincial guard pinned down here for three days. Given three days, by the time the guard hears about the state of emergency in Meikaku and are ordered to return, the die will have already been cast."

Koshou looked up at the ceiling and heaved a big sigh. "Step on a cockroach, and there's a hundred more where that one came from. I assume you've got mates aiming to take out Gahou."

"What? No. We've got no plans to knock off Gahou and take over the provincial castle. We only hope to sully his image and tarnish his name. That you'd actually schemed to overrun a prefectural castle was a huge surprise on our end."

Koshou laughed loudly. "A feather in our caps, then. When guys like us lock our jaws on something, we don't let go so easy."



When Shoukei emerged onto the wall walk, Suzu and another girl were looking down at the castle compound.

"It's a good thing you weren't wounded," Shoukei said.

Suzu glanced back over her shoulder. "Yeah," she said. With a shining countenance, she turned to the girl next to her. "Youshi, this is--"

Recognizing her, Shoukei burst out, "It's you!"

The girl reacted with equal surprise. Taken aback, Suzu said, "You already know each other?"

The girl nodded. Shoukei spoke up. "She saved my life in Meikaku. I didn't get a chance to thank you. I never imagined we would have met in such a place as this."

"No problem," the girl answered, with a smile.

"Your name is Youshi? We didn't have time to introduce ourselves before."

"This is unbelievable," said Suzu. "Youshi, this is Shoukei."

Youshi flashed her a smile, as did Shoukei in return. They lined up on either side of Suzu, shoulder to shoulder, and gazed down at the foot of the wall walk.

"It's incredible, all these people," Suzu blurted out.

Shoukei grinned. "You didn't expect it?"

"Not in a million years. To be honest, I have to wonder if it's the best tack to take."

"Smooth sailing certainly doesn't await us. The provincial guard are on the march and headed our way. They'll get here tomorrow or the day after. Today's our one chance to take a breather."

"Yeah."

"At least you captured Shoukou."

Suzu nodded and turned to her neighbor. "Because Youshi said not to kill him. And the fact of the matter is, killing him would have felt good in the moment, but over the long haul, it wouldn't have meant anything. He's an awful man, but it's better that he should stand in the dock for his crimes."

"You're right."

Suzu and Shoukei were silent for several minutes. The warm, springlike sunlight flooded the wall walk. The smell of blood and death was in the wind, but they had become inured to its scent.

Suzu said, "I can't believe that we're just hanging out like this."

Shoukei agreed. "Really. The city feels so strange."

The hustle and bustle inside the castle filled the air with a dull roar. Outside the walls, the city was silent. The main boulevard was devoid of people. The only time a person did appear was to cross the street, walking briskly to the other side as if to fetch something left behind.

Although the castle gates were closed and secured, people came and went in significant numbers. Despite this, none of the city's denizens dared to come and check things out for themselves. Even individuals spotted crossing the boulevard far off in the distance acted as if they knew nothing and saw nothing.

"Everybody's holding their breath, wondering what's coming next."

"Holding their breath?"

"Shoukou really was a monster. In one way or another, everybody was terrified of him. There's not much humanity left in this city."

"Meaning--?"

"The same time we were tracking down Shoukou, our agents fanned out throughout the city to rally support for our cause. But nobody answered the call. Even when the prefectural castle fell before their very eyes, they wouldn't get off their butts. They're all convinced that if they even raise a finger, they'll be found out and consequences will follow."

"That's harsh."

"Still," said Suzu, placing her hands on the merlon and straightening herself, "I have a pretty good idea where they're coming from."

"How's that?"

"I was working at a big estate before I came to Kei. The mistress there made my life hell. When I think back about it now, I should have asked her, 'Why are you doing this?' But show disrespect to Mistress Riyou-sama and she'd tear you apart with her tongue and then work your fingers to the bone. So you shut up and lived with the fear. You shut up and persevered, and all the while only got more and more scared."

"Huh."

"She was always saying, 'If anything bad happens, you'll catch it,' and you'd be overcome with this sense of unease. When I sort it out in my mind, though, Mistress Riyou-sama wasn't so cruel that she'd ever deliberately kill me--she didn't even physically accost me--but I could never convince myself that she wouldn't."

Suzu turned her back to the city. "When you're putting up with something, it's coming to the end of your tether that scares you. No matter how hard things are now, you just know your life will get so much worse if you give into your impulses and go flying off the handle."

"I suppose that's true--"

"But that doesn't mean the times weren't tough. Because my life was hard, I couldn't stop thinking how unlucky I was and couldn't stop feeling sorry for myself. The people shut up in their houses right now are in exactly the same state of mind. It would never occur to them to try and take down some big important person."

An ironic smile came to Shoukei's lips. "Anybody who ends up dead probably had it coming. That's what they're thinking. But when you understand that there are people like Shoukou in the world, then you know the murderers are the evil ones."

"That's true."

"People treat unhappiness like a competition. Of course, the dead are the most unfortunate of all, but when you feel compelled to pity another person, it somehow makes you feel like the loser. Believing that you're the most pitiable person on the face of the earth isn't so different from believing you're the most blessed. Feeling sorry for yourself and resenting all others, you run away from what you really should be doing."

"Indeed."

"When someone tells you, 'No, you're wrong,' you get all pissed off at them. You're angry because they dared to criticize poor unlucky you."

Suzu giggled. "Exactly."

Shoukei looked at Youshi, who, eyes downcast, hadn't said a word so far. "Sorry. We didn't mean to bug you with all this chit-chat."

"Not at all," Youshi said, not shifting her gaze. "I've been thinking about how we all managed to end up in the same place, in the same predicament."

"Yeah."

"Being happy is simple. It's the getting there that's hard to pull off. At least, that's the way it strikes me."

"You know," said Suzu. "when it comes to living a life, happiness is only the half of it. Suffering is the other half."

"I couldn't agree more," Shoukei said with a nod. "But all we see is the suffering. Little by little, we lose the ability to even recognize happiness when it's in our grasp."

"It's a matter of willpower. You know, this is a strange conversation we're having."

"Strange indeed."

Shoukei and Suzu ran out of things to say. The three of them lazily enjoyed the slight breeze.

"People are curious creatures," Suzu said absent-mindedly. As if snapping out of a daze, she lifted her head. "Hey, how about we do a patrol? Let's take a walk around the walls."
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Chapter 71

18-3 On such a carefree afternoon, it was hard to believe that there was a war going on.

"Starting tomorrow, people are going to start dying," Suzu blurted out as they strode along the wall walk.

"With so many sacrifices being made," Shoukei added, "news of this is bound to reach the ears of the Royal Kei."

Youko stopped in her tracks. Shoukei glanced over her shoulder, a quizzical look on her face. "Ah," she said, a smile coming to her face. "You see, even if we attempted a coup d'etat, there's no guarantee that it would succeed. Kantai and the others aren't thinking about dispatching Gahou. If they could have their way, they'd like to know why their leader was punished by the Royal Kei. But if she takes notice, then it's worth the cost."

Suzu nodded in agreement. "The Empress can't have any idea what's going on in Wa Province and Shisui Prefecture. If she knew the chaotic state things were in, and how much Shoukou and Gahou are despised, she'd be sure to investigate and spend a lot more time righting wrongs like this. That's what we're shooting for."

Suzu giggled to herself. "To tell the truth, I came to Kei to meet the Empress. So did Shoukei."

Youko's eyes flew open wide. "To meet the Royal Kei? Why?"

"Because she's the same age as us," Suzu and Shoukei said at the same time, and laughed.

"That's the only reason?"

"No, not really," Suzu quickly added. "It was also because we were both kaikyaku."

As they strolled along the wall walk, Suzu recounted the tale of her long journey. It really was a long journey. So many things had happened by the time she'd wound up here. Now, despite being in the middle of a war she wasn't sure she'd survive, she found herself strangely at peace with herself, as calm as this early spring morning.

"Because I was a kaikyaku, I felt incredibly sorry for myself. I told myself that a fellow kaikyaku like the Empress would take pity on me and help me out."

"You've really grown up, Suzu," Shoukei said.

Suzu waved her hand. "Oh, c'mon. It's hardly anything to boast about."

"Well, I despised the Royal Kei. But only because she was favorite scapegoat. I couldn't forgive the fact that I'd been driven out of the imperial palace at the same time a girl my same age had been crowned Empress."

And then Shoukei recounted the details of her journey as well. The regicide of her father, the freezing winters spend at the rike, the time she was almost executed, and being sent to Kyou. How she'd escaped and fled to Ryuu, and the person she encountered there.

"If I hadn't met Rakushun, I'd still be in the same sorry state I was then. I owe him everything."

"Rakushun--!" Youko exclaimed.

Shoukei turned to her. "He's a really good person. I had to believe that if the Royal Kei was a friend of his, then she must be a good person too."

"I am?"

"Eh?" Suzu and Shoukei said together. They stopped and stared at her. "You're what?"

"I mean, what I'm telling you is, the Royal Kei you're talking about is me!"

Both Suzu and Shoukei's mouths dropped open.

"I know this is going to sound like some sort of joke, but listening to your stories, I couldn't remain silent. I had to say something." Youko felt incredibly awkward. Suzu and Shoukei didn't look like they were buying it.

"The Royal Kei? Sekishi?"

"Yeah. The ministers came up with that name. The Red Child. You see, because of my hair--"

Their sense of astonishment slowly grew. "Is your name really Youshi?"

"Well, it's really Youko. The characters are the same. You as in taiyou (the sun). Shi as in shison (descendant)."

"You can't be serious!" Suzu stared at Youko. Buried feelings groaned to life within her. Hadn't she bought the dagger currently inside her vest for the express purpose of killing the Royal Kei?

Shoukei gazed at Youko as well. The person she'd resented and envied for so long was right there in front of her. Long-forgotten emotions swelled within her breast. Had she ever really hated her that much?

"If you're telling us the truth, then what in the world are you doing here?" Why aren't you in Kinpa, the Imperial Palace in Gyouten? she meant.

"I'm a taika. I don't know a thing about this world. I was being tutored by a man named Enho."

"Enho--the man who was kidnapped?"

Youko nodded. "Shoukou had the rike attacked and Enho abducted. Shoukou may have carried out the orders, but in one way or another, Gahou was at the root of it. Shoukou says that Enho is now in Meikaku. I've been looking everywhere for him, trying to rescue him, and this is where I ended up."

"You didn't have to get involved in something like this!" Shoukei practically shouted at her. If she was the Empress--really was the Empress--then she should have simply dismissed Shoukou. Carrying on in this manner, so many people who'd never intended to put their lives on the line were suffering mortal injuries. How many people had died so far? Of the three men Kantai had ordered to Takuhou, one was already dead. The faces of mercenaries she'd become so accustomed were gone before she knew it. How many of Suzu's comrades had been lost as well?

"I couldn't order the Imperial Army to arrest Shoukou. I don't have that kind of authority."

"What do you mean you don't? That doesn't make any sense!"

"I don't. I truly don't. I told Keiki to relieve Shoukou of his post, but the ministers wouldn't act without sufficient grounds. I had to present them with convincing reasons and concrete evidence to back them up. I do not have the trust of the bureaucracy."

"Why?"

"They say I'm incompetent. And I am. I don't know anything about this world. No matter how hard I think a matter through, I can't say what the best solution is. The ministers don't trust empresses. This kingdom has had a bad run of empresses. And when it comes to something like this, they're hardly going to leave things to my discretion."

"This is too unbelievable." But Shoukei had heard too many times how Kei was not blessed by its empresses.

"I asked Keiki to mobilize the provincial guard, but he wasn't able to. His minister of defense and his three commanding officers were suddenly struck ill."

Shoukei was too taken aback to speak.

"He returned to the palace to put the Imperial Court in order, but it was too late. Enho had been kidnapped. The rike was attacked and a girl my age was murdered. Her brother was stabbed and now clings to life. He was immediately taken back to the palace, and while the doctors have done everything they can for him, we don't know whether he will live or die."

"Doctors," Suzu muttered to herself. Shoukei glanced at her. Suzu's eyes were focused on Youko.

"Yes, I know. A child died in this city as well. When I found him, the life was all but gone from him. There wasn't anything I could do to help him."

"Really?" Shoukei asked. "You would have helped him if you'd been in time?"

Youko drew her brows together in obvious discomfort. "Of course. One life is worth as much as another."

"And if that child had suffered a less grievous wound?"

Youko's expression turned even more disagreeable. "And you, Shoukei? Would you have walked by on the other side? Wouldn't you have at least taken him to a doctor? Isn't that the kind of thing that people normally do?"

"Yeah, sure," Shoukei said, with a sigh. Suzu didn't say anything. She rested her forehead against the merlon.

"Look, as an empress, I'm nothing to write home about, okay? I had no idea my subjects were dying right and left, being taxed to death, worked to death, and suffering God knows what else. I know it's a poor excuse to say that I only feel compelled to help the unfortunate right there in front of me, but like I said, I'm pretty much a joke as far as empresses go. When I said I'd help Keikei or that other boy, that still means that some other kid in some other place else is going to die. But how can you ignore the suffering in front of your eyes?"

"You can't."

"Yeah," said Youko, bowing her head. "I'm sorry I don't exactly measure up."

Shoukei nodded. Hugging her arms around the merlon, Suzu suddenly burst out laughing.

"Suzu--"

"I know, I know," Suzu said, waving her hand back and forth. She clung to the merlon and buried her face in the crook of her arm, tears of mirth streaming down her cheeks as she laughed.

"Suzu, what's your problem?"

"But . . . I mean . . . this is so stupid!"

"Suzu, really!"

"Not knowing the slightest thing about her, I built up all these expectations, only to see them dashed. I didn't place all my hopes in Youko. I placed all my hopes in some big, important person called the 'Empress.' What a fool I was!"

Youko stared at her, a perplexed expression on her face. Suzu flashed her a strained smile. "But that's the way it is with an empress, no? Everybody burdens you with their own expectations. Nobody thinks about things from your perspective. And so we all get to wallow in our own disappointment. Don't you think?"

Shoukei looked up at the heavens and sighed. "Indeed."

"So what do you think I should do?" the puzzled Youko asked.

"Huh?" said Suzu, raising her head. "Well, there's no doubt about that, is there?"

Shoukei scowled at Suzu, and then sighed again. "No, you're right. There isn't." She clapped Youko on the back. "We defeat the provincial guard and tear Gahou from power!"
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Part IXX (Chapter 72)


n the dead of the night, Youko was awakened from a light sleep by the violent beating of a drum.

"W-what's going on?"

Next to her, Suzu and Shoukei awoke with a start.

"An attack?"

"The provincial guard can't have gotten here already!"

They jumped to their feet and rushed out of the guard tower onto the wall walk. The sound came from one of the drum turrets positioned at the four corners of the castle walls.

"What happened, Kantai?"

Standing on the wall walk, Kantai turned his severe countenance and gestured toward the south.

Youko gasped. She and Suzu and Shoukei stood rooted to the spot. The darkness spread out over the city of Takuhou. To the south, a light could be seen along the outer loop road. A red light. Flames.

"A fire?" queried Suzu.

Youko narrowed her eyes.

"Why?" somebody asked.

Sekki and Koshou came running.

"Koshou, there's a fire--"

Sekki's voice interrupted hers. "It's the provincial guard."

"What?" The people there all turned and looked at Sekki.

"This is no doubt some strategy of Gahou's. The guard intends to burn us out, along with Shoukou and the city."

"Nonsense!" came a cry from the gathering crowd.

"Koshou, what do we do?" a familiar voice asked. "Consider the time of night! We must wake the citizenry and muster them to put out the fires!"

"No!" Both Kantai and Sekki answered together.

"Why not, Sekki?"

"The guard are waiting for us. The calvalry has likely pushed on ahead of the infantry. They're waiting for us to leave the castle. Send anybody out there, and the elite of the cavalry will set on them like a wolf pack."

Kantai agreed. "Sekki's right. Rush out of here and you'll be running headlong into a trap. It will takes hours for the fire to reach the castle. For the time being, it'd be best to watch and see how things develop."

Koshou glanced back and forth between the two. "You mean to stand by and do nothing?"

"There's probably nothing that we can do," Sekki said. The sound of a pounding drum burst forth from another turret on the castle walls. Sekki hung his head. "Another fire's been lit."

"Sekki!" Koshou raised his arms. "We turn our back on them and we're no better than common murderers!" He said to Youko. "Let's go."

"Youshi! Koshou!"

Suzu put her hand on Sekki shoulder. "It's wrong to get even with somebody out of a personal grudge, right? If we look the other way now, it will look like we did it all out of spite. We'll lose the high moral ground."

"Suzu--"

"There's no saying how things would have turned out if Kantai and Shoukei hadn't shown up. Since we were prepared for that eventuality all along, what if only we go?"

Sekki nodded. "Find a place where you can break through and secure an escape route for the people of the city."

"All right, then." Koshou gave Sekki a slap on the back that practically sent him sprawling. "Move out!"



A man noticed the smoke and jumped out of bed. He took note of the sound of popping wood and the strange hot wind and shook his wife awake. After the many days filled with dread, she slept soundly on this unexpectedly quiet night.

"Wake up!" he shouted. He ran through the living room to the bedroom opposite and scooped his small daughter up in his arms. Still half-asleep, she opened her eyes. Soothing her and hurrying his wife along, they headed outside.

"What in the world--!"

The avenue was a sea of flames. The man at once understood that the fire had become a firestorm.

"We've got to get out of the city! Now!"

This was what came from defying Shoukou. The people in Shisui were born under an unlucky star. This what happened when they questioned that fate. But until today, at least the destroying angel had passed by his house.

They mingled together with other scrambling, befuddled people running toward the Monkey Gate. The man stopped in his tracks and stared. The Monkey Gate was closed, and the mounted knights arrayed in front of the gate were up to no good. The ground beneath the horses' hooves was strewn with bodies.

He grasped his wife's arm, turned on his heels, and dragged her back the way they'd come. His wife screamed as an old man next to him took an arrow in the chest.

What did he do? What had he ever done to the likes of them? He had nothing to do with those rebels. Why kill him and all his kin on account of what they did?

For the time being, the rest of them could only run frantically down the street toward the inner loop road, away from the conflagration. The flames licked the sky all around them, filling him with horror. Here, there, and everywhere. From every point of the compass. The tongues of fire licking upwards next to a gate an instant later had crept along the ridgepoles and joined with a neighboring fire, growing much stronger.

What is going on?

Any escape had been closed off. His daughter opened her eyes and began to wail. "At the very least--" he said, turning around. A red light glowed atop the ink dark walls of the castle, lending it a foreboding and magisterial appearance. "You go to the castle."

"But--" his wife objected.

He handed the child to her. "They're the ones who overthrew Shoukou and caused all this. They won't abandon you. Go!" he said, giving her a push.

At the same time, the west White Dragon Gate opened and people spilled out. He froze in place.

"Get back!"

He stared at the horse and rider galloping toward him.

"Watch out for ambushes! The fire won't spread easily beyond the main boulevard! There are bound to be arsonists still in the city!"

"Understood!" they shouted, as they sprinted past him.

In all the confusion, the man hadn't budged an inch. Left behind in front of the gate, a boy perched on a horse waved at him. "They'll show you the way! Follow them!"



Amidst the jumble of human activity in front of the White Dragon Gate, Kantai sprang onto the back of his kitsuryou. He turned to his two subordinates. "As much as possible, keep the people away from the castle walls. An attack may come in the midst of all this turmoil. Take the wounded inside the castle if necessary, but keep on your toes. There may be provincial guardsmen lying in wait among them."

"So you'll be going as well, then?"

Kantai grinned at the men before him. "To put it another way, I can't afford not to. No man's praise can make up for Koshou's scorn." He shouldered his lance. "I'll leave the rest to your good offices."

The men bowed. Kantai saluted and spurred on the kitsuryou.
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Chapter 73

19-2 "Koshou!"

Alerted by Youko's cry, Koshou scanned his surroundings. His eyes were drawn to several men charging out of a nearby alleyway. Seeing weapons in their hands, he swung his broadsword, eviscerating the first and impaling the second and third on the back swing.

Youko charged into the melee and cut down the remaining two.

"These bushwhackers are everywhere."

"Very much so."

The main boulevard ran straight from the White Tiger Gate to the Rooster Gate. Urging the panicking civilians to move toward the castle, Koshou wiped off his sword. As expected, even a winter weapon eventually lost its edge. They regrouped with their colleagues and crossed the main boulevard. The fire pressed south along the streets. Where the street dipped down, Koshou came to a halt.

They saw the silhouettes of mounted riders coming toward them, dragging down the small shops that lined the streets as they went along. Without all the debris, the street would be close to eighty paces wide, and it'd be rare for a fire to breach the gap. For the time being, the fires raging to the left and right of the street had not approached close enough to singe them.

"Those bastards are fast," Koshou growled. "Aim for the horse's legs."

"Roger!" came the acknowledgments from around him.

They stared each other down. The horsemen made the first move. As soon as the order was given, the earth trembled and the horses launched forward. Koshou and his companions sized up the situation and readied themselves.

Youko stepped off to the side, leaned over and addressed the ground at her feet. "If you would, please," she said.

"Yes," the voice answered in return, and faded away.

The horses bore down on them. The horse in the lead suddenly crashed to the ground. "What?" puzzled Koshou. The fallen horse tripped up the one behind it. The third horse just managed to skirt the pileup, but then for some reason tumbled to the ground as well--as if its hooves had been yanked out from under.

"What the hell's going on?"

"Strike while the iron's hot," Youko's cool voice said next to him.

Koshou glanced at Youko, but she had already taken off after the fallen knights.



When Kantai arrived on the scene, the street was a confusion of friend and foe: fallen steeds and the onrushing civilians, panicked soldiers returning fire.

"You seem to be handling things." Kantai dismounted from the kitsuryou and jumped down next to Koshou. The kitsuryou turned and set off back to the castle.

"Not our doing. We seem to have some friendly spirits on our side. The horses took it upon themselves to bite the dust without us lifting a finger."

"Huh." Kantai readied his lance. Made of forged steel down to the hilt, the lance was Kantai's personal winter weapon.

"And with so little light, haven't taken an arrow in some time now."

"A good thing too, having good luck and a fair wind at your back. Let's take the fight to the Rooster Gate!"

"I'm with you!" said Koshou, and started off at a run. Kantai followed after him, skewering the unseated knights milling about in disarray.



A soldier bounded to his feet. Youko batted away the spear tip thrust at her. Having lost his weapon, the soldier ran away, and Youko didn't bother chasing him. She looked up. The Rooster Gate was not far off. She could see a catapult there, but no projectiles had recently flown in their direction. She smiled to herself. At her heels a voice said, "Soldiers have begun a headlong retreat from the outer gate."

"Thanks. And how are you holding out?" Shirei they might be, but they were not invulnerable. Winter weapons could mortally wound them. An alert soldier could sense them coming, even hiding in the shadows.

"A few scratches. Nothing serious."

"Sorry for the trouble. Could you do another job for me?"

"The provincial guard stationed at the Rooster Gate?"

"Yes." Youko indicated the nearby enemy with her sword.

"By your command."

The voice disappeared. At the same time, a soldier drew his sword and closed on her. Their blades clashed, throwing off sparks. Steel ground against steel. She turned his sword aside, he stumbled off balance, and she swatted him in the back with the flat of the blade. He didn't retreat though, but slashed at her again. This time, she parried the attack, aiming for the hilt. He dropped the sword and ran off yelping.

"You don't seem to enjoy killing people," Kantai called out to her.

"Better a conflict resolved without a death than with."

"If we're not culling the enemy's forces, then what's the point?"

"I'm hoping to chip away at their morale instead."

"Aren't you a strange one. Handling a sword the way you do, and yet spouting such sentimental nonsense." There was laughter in his voice. "Who were you speaking with just now?"

"Nobody. I have a habit of talking to myself."

"Oh?" Kantai said, stepping away from her. Three soldiers ran at them waving their swords. He mowed them down with his lance, like wheat before a sickle. The heavy armor groaned. Struck above the knees, the three crumpled into a heap on top of each other.

Youko was amazed. That Koshou possessed the strength to wield a hundred-pound broadsword was impressive enough, but the way Kantai twirled around that solid steel lance was beyond incredible. Even Koshou had to gasp. The lance must weigh at least three hundred pounds, and as burly a man as Kantai was, he didn't weigh three hundred pounds. Not only carrying a steel lance as massive as himself, but whirling it about the way he did, defied common sense. And yet he showed no signs of running out of energy.

"He's some kind of monster," Koshou said in an amazed tone of voice. He was breathing hard by now. He held a scimitar in his hand.

"What happened to your broadsword?"

"Broke it."

"Ah," Youko nodded.

She ran down the street. Three thousand had stormed out of the castle. They established a fire line in the middle of the main boulevard and moved forward to extinguish the flames. The Rooster Gate was before them. Youko's platoon had been significantly reduced in number. Nevertheless, they somehow had to hold the gate and the city streets between them and the main gate of the castle.

For the time being, the firestorms in the city behind her seemed to be abating.
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Chapter 74

19-3 Suzu and Shoukei and their squad galloped through the city, directing civilians dazed and confused by the fire to the south. "Extinguish the fires! If you intend to run for it, then head for the Rooster Gate!"

Here and there, guardsmen were still lying in wait. They evaded them as best they could, but pretty soon their strength began to flag. They were ambushed over and over. A mercenary next to Shoukei was struck and felled. They just managed to escape as more soldiers rushed them, firing arrows and thrusting pikes. Another horse was struck in the legs and collapsed.

Not far off, Suzu screamed. "Sekki!"

The rider of the fallen horse was Sekki. He hit the ground and was sent sprawling. Light infantrymen charged him. Shoukei swung her mount around, but there was no way she would reach him in time. She spotted a soldier swinging a scimitar and screamed as well. Sekki wore no armor that could protect him from such a weapon.

"Sekki!"

The heavy clang rang out from a violent impact. The soldier waving the scimitar dropped his weapon, threw his arms over his head, and squatted down on the ground. Suzu stared in amazement.

"Enough already!" The white-haired old man swung the hunk of wood a second time at the soldier. "Who do you think you are?"

A rider approached on Shoukei's blind side and delivered the coup de grace to the soldier.

Sekki sat up and looked at the old man holding the wooden door bolt. "Thank you."

"Think nothing of it."

A sinewy hand reached down to him. Sekki grasped the hand and was pulled to his feet. Sekki wasn't injured so badly that he couldn't walk. He went to let go, but the old man held on. Sekki turned to him.

The old man asked, "Is Shoukou dead?"

"We've captured him. He's being held in the prefectural offices."

"Ah," he said, at last letting go of Sekki's hand. "Is there anything more I can do?"

Sekki smiled. "You can help put out the fires."

The man nodded and turned around. Suzu smiled down at Sekki. "See? There are people here who get it."

Sekki grasped her hand and she pulled him onto the back of the horse.

"Let's go. We still haven't made it all the way around the city."



They fought their way to the Rooster Gate and dispatched the platoon of soldiers there who had held their ground. The area around the gate was quiet. No incoming arrows. The guard towers atop the gate were silent.

Youko permitted herself a small smile. Koshou gazed at the scene disbelievingly and turned to her. "What have you been up to?"

Youko returned the look and casually shrugged. "What could I have possibly been up to? Say, do you think we should open the gate?"

Koshou scowled and approached the gate. The gate had a portcullis, but it hadn't been lowered. He pushed aside the assault wagon barricading the three doors of the gate and released the bolts.

It was likely that the arrows would come flying as soon as he opened the large center door. Knowing that, he hesitated. Youko's hand did not as she opened the smaller auxiliary gate. She often pressed forward in this reckless manner. When she did, Koshou had learned, it usually meant the danger was gone.

Kantai opened the second auxiliary gate to Koshou's left. "Will you look at that," he said, in a deeply curious voice. He turned to Youko, who was securing the ring in the door to a hook on the wall. "Youshi, did you know there were no enemy outside?"

In fact, there was no sign of the enemy outside the gates. Aside from some wounded, and the scattered corpses and weapons, the countryside was almost bucolic.

"Ah--" said Youko, and shook her head.

"You didn't seem very uncertain about opening that door?"

"I, uh, forgot that there might be enemy out there."

"You--" Kantai started to say.

Youko interrupted him. "Enemy are approaching from the other direction. Don't you think we'd better hurry up and get ready for them?"

Koshou and Kantai exchanged glances. A man ran up to the door that Koshou was holding, pushed it open and latched it.

Koshou thought he was from Meikaku. Kantai thought he was from Takuhou. Having secured the door, the man pointed at the assault wagon. "Wouldn't it be best to move that and set up a defensive position?"

"Sure," said Koshou and Kantai, and then noticed that the man was shaking so bad his teeth were chattering. At this late stage, neither Koshou nor Kantai had seen anybody in their squads trembling this badly.

Koshou grinned and gave the man a whack on the shoulders. "Right you are. Thanks for the advice!"



As soon as they'd set up a defensive line outside the gate, they heard the sound of approaching horses.

"They're coming."

Koshou readied himself. In a peevish voice he exclaimed, "Dammit! We didn't have time to let the civilians escape!"

The red light from the city shone on his face. Youko peered up at the guard towers. Is this light a blessing? Or does the smoke cause more harm than good? It'd be hard to shoot at the enemy without any light to see by. But with the thick smoke filling the streets, it was getting hard to see anything even with the light.

"What do you say, Koshou? Should we shut the gates and return to the city center?"

"No other choice but to."

"There's an assault wagon," she heard Kantai say.

The hand gripping the hilt of her sword shook slightly, as did the ground beneath her feet. On unbroken ground, an assault wagon was the equal of ten mounted knights. The heavy rolling sound of the armored wagon echoed through the smoke.

The few civilians who had girded up their loins to join them retreated back down and sought the refuge at the castle. Only the battle-tested massed at the Rooster Gate. Even so, Youko and her fellow defenders were at an overwhelming disadvantage. The provincial guard would not only strike at the Rooster Gate. They'd have no choice but to divide their strength among the other gates at well.

They had about five hundred fighters gathered at the Rooster Gate. The provincial guard typically maintained reserves of 7500 cavalry in three regiments of 2500 soldiers each. Two regiments had been dispatched from Meikaku to Takuhou. With one regiment pushing on ahead, that meant another 2500 would be bringing up the rear. They could deploy at least four hundred to each of the twelve gates.

The rebels had broken the siege at the Rooster Gate, but simple math said that a good 4500 cavalry still surrounded Takuhou.

"Shut the gate!" ordered Koshou, and turned on his heels.

The sound of the assault wagon pressed nearer. Faint shapes and shadows could be seen through the smoke. Youko's eyes widened. It wasn't an assault wagon. It was more like a wedge out of the Great Wall itself moving slowly toward them.

"A siege tower," Kantai said in a low voice. "They came with siege towers."

"Siege towers?" queried Koshou.

"The forward portions are lined with armor, and behind them sandbags, giving cover to the soldiers. The big ones are called cloud bridges. That one's a thunder bridge. It's drawn by a bunch of siege wagons, each pulled by teams of horses. Ordinary mounts won't do, though. They'd tire too quickly."

"You're not so normal yourself."

"No less normal than Youshi. That thing there's for attacking the castle. If we don't stop it now, even if we shut the gates, it'll just break through the walls."

"What's the best way to attack it, then?" Youko asked.

Kantai raised his head in response to her question. "Koshou--" he said.

"What?" Koshou asked, looking back at him.

Kantai gestured with his lance. "Prepare fire arrows. As best you can, man the wall walks and fire down on the teams pushing the siege tower forward. You can use this. You hold it at the base and brandish it about. If it's too much for one person, make it a two-man operation. At any rate, if you can stop the siege tower coming in from the north and check the progress of the cavalry, head back to the city."

Koshou took the lance and grimaced. "We'll see what we can do. What are we going to do about the one coming from the south?"

"Leave it to me."

Youko peered up at Kantai. "With your bare hands?"

Kantai laughed. "My bare hands will do. You can cover me."

Youko furrowed her brow. The siege tower moved ever closer. They didn't have time to debate the subject.

"You going or not? Hey, you up there!" Koshou barked out. "Cover them!" The fighters before the gate suddenly stormed northward. Kantai launched himself southward.

He's fast. Youko followed after him, matching his unusually rapid gait. She drew her sword. Only because she had ordered the shirei to eliminate the archers could she proceed without fear of arrows.

At the same time her eyes grew wider with amazement. Kantai's body sank lower and lower to the ground. For a moment she feared he had been struck by an arrow, but he sank even lower. More than sinking, she got the impression that his body was somehow contracting. This wasn't because of an arrow. His forward progress made that clear.

What in the world--!

The shape and form of his body seemed to be dissolving. A moment later, he began to grow larger. His mutating form was both growing and taking on completely new dimensions. Or so it seemed to her.

From the wall walks as well, from every direction, a great stir went up. Kantai was some different kind of human. His hands emerged--no doubt about it--as forepaws. He shot across the ground up to the siege tower as fast as an arrow. He coiled up his body--now resembling a small mountain--and raked the side of the siege tower with a huge forepaw.

That single blow shook the thunder bridge. The siege wagons connected to it rocked back and forth and crashed to the earth, halting its forward progress.

He's a hanjuu.

Lances jabbed at the enormous bear, as it reared up on his hind legs. Youko ran forward to sever the spear tips from the shafts.

"Hey, my apologies," came a deep voice suffused with laughter. With a swipe of its paw, the huge bear took off the whole front of the assault wagon and sent it tumbling through the air.

As she swung her sword, Youko had to smile as well. "Just as I thought, the strength of no ordinary man."



The sun rose over the hills to the east of Takuhou. The city still smoldered, the smoke blurring the morning rays. But at least no tongues of fire could be seen.

Between the White Dragon Gate at the castle and the Rooster Gate, a collection of wagons blocked off the side streets, securing direct access to the Rooster Gate. Many silhouettes could be seen occupying the guard towers over the twelve city gates. The countless figures of men and women alike were perched atop the walls stretching out from the main gate.

Meeting fierce resistance, the Wa Provincial cavalry ringing the city had retreated for the time being. After a great deal of effort, they'd managed to join up with infantry advancing along the highway south of Takuhou and were setting up battle lines on the plains outside the Horse Gate.

The provincial guard rushed here had no grasp of the number of enemy forces they were facing. To what extent the citizens of Takuhou had joined up with the rebels, or whether they were only holed up in the citadel and protecting that.

This civilian rebellion was nothing to make light of, the foot messengers said. Already the civilians had taken over the ramparts and were keeping a valuable prize within the prefectural offices themselves. They were going to have to attack the formidable fortress at the heart of the city. Amidst this gloomy realization, even more startling news arrived:

This morning before dawn, Meikaku fell into chaos.
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Part XX (Chapter 75)


reat!" exclaimed a smiling Koshou. "We kept 'em pinned down for three days, just like Kantai wanted."

Looking out from the turret at a corner of the city wall, he could see that the provincial guard troops bivouacked there were pulling up stakes. From the start, they'd faced a fortress of a castle, and Shoukou's large-scale defensive works had turned Takuhou into the size of a provincial castle.

"What in the world happened? It's amazing!"

"More than amazing, unbelievable," said Kantai. In the turret, Shoukei and Suzu exchanged glances and smiled.

"I'm starving."

Koshou sat down on a bench. There was plenty of food in the prefectural castle, but nobody to prepare it. It'd been left up to the castle cooks to keep the many prisoners of war fed. But as Koshou and the rest of them had no idea where the loyalties of the castle staff lay, they hesitated eating what was being served. The staff had at last been increased, and the night before they'd finally managed a cooked meal. But they hadn't had the time to eat since.

Suzu giggled. "Some of the women in the city are bringing meals. Just hold on a bit longer."

Koshou sighed pitifully. A voice called out from the top floor of the corner turret, "Koshou! Reinforcements!"

"What?" Koshou leapt to his feet and ran to the stairs leading up to the top floor. Everybody followed after him.

"Koshou!" The man looking down from the top of the staircase looked pretty green.

"Reinforcements?"

"Their standards?"

The man's voice rose to a nervous squeak. "Dragon banners in the west!"

Koshou and Kantai practically fell over each other rushing up the stairs. Shoukei gasped, "Dragon banners--that's the standard of the Empress." She seized the arm of the man who came stumbling down the stairs. "Dragon standards? Really?"

"I--ah--"

"What color are the ensigns?"

"Purple."

Shoukei and Suzu exchanged surprised looks. Youko darted up the stairs. Dragon standards and purple ensigns. They could only mean one thing.

The Palace Guard.



Koshou and Kantai rushed down the stairs. When they ran out on the wall walk, Shoukei and Suzu climbed the stairs.

"Youko! Is it really the Palace Guard?"

Looking out the window, Youko nodded, her face white.

"Why would the Palace Guard be coming here?"

"I have no idea."

From the window, Youko stared out at the nearby hills. A large army was proceeding down the highway, cavalry in the lead. They bore the dragon standard. There could be no doubts about it. This was indeed the standard of the Palace Guard, who should be currently stationed at Gyouten.

"It looks like we won't be ending up under the thumb of the provincial guard."

Shoukei stood next to Youko. "Gahou's got an ally in Gyouten. That person would be in the position to mobilize the Palace Guard."

Youko turned to her. "The Ministry of Summer?"

"What kind of person is the Defense Minister?"

"To tell the truth--" Youko had to think about it. She mentally traced the organizational chart of the Imperial Court. What faction did the Minister of Summer belong to? The army wouldn't move on any but the Minister's orders. Positing that there was a person who could mobilize the army, the person must wield significant power among the ministers.

"Seikyou."

"Who?" said Shoukei.

"The previous Chousai, the Minister-in-Chief of the Rikkan. He heads the most powerful faction in the Court."

"That's it, then."

"Wait a minute." Suzu spoke up, in a puzzled voice. "Why would Chousai mobilize the army on Gahou's behalf? Mobilizing the Imperial Army would be strange enough. But the Palace Guard? That's because Youko is here!"

"Oh, it's for Gahou," said Shoukei. "Nothing else makes sense, does it? So is Gahou using Chousai or is Chousai using Gahou?"

"But Seikyou hates Gahou."

"Hates him? Why?"

Youko unconsciously caught her breath. She remembered Seikyou declaring how Gahou's behavior was unforgivable, but then saying that without evidence there was nothing he could do. She heaved a vexed sigh.

"Faking a feud is a piece of cake. If he's getting Gahou to do his dirty business, then of course he would pretend to disapprove in public. The kind of people who would slight the Empress and mobilize the Palace Guard on a whim would certainly be capable of the rest. It was probably Chousai's faction advocating the sacking of the Province Lord of Baku."

"You're right. It was."

"In short, Chousai hated the Marquis of Baku. A province lord who followed the Way and loved his subjects would be an eyesore to him."

"Um--" Suzu said, somewhat dubiously. "Do you think the kidnapping of Enho and the destruction of the Evergreen Seminary was the work of this Chousai as well?"

"The Evergreen Seminary?"

"It was on Gahou's orders. So was sending Enho to Meikaku."

"That's definitely the case. What about the Wa Province Lord looking so disapprovingly on seminaries in other provinces? If Chousai was pulling the strings behind the scenes, then it starts to make sense. A fellow of the Evergreen Seminary like Marquis Baku would prove a nuisance. They'd despise all seminaries like it. Graduates entering the Imperial government on the recommendation of the Marquis would cause them nothing but problems. It all fits together, doesn't it?"

Youko sighed again. Then she narrowed her eyes. "You've got a devious mind, Shoukei."

"I understand palace intrigues very well. I didn't hang around in the palace for thirty years for nothing. A few things I got down, if I say so myself."

"Unbelievable," Youko said with a sly smile.

Suzu tugged on her sleeve. "But what do we do now? The provincial guard was bad enough. But how can it not be over when the Palace Guard arrive?"

Youko knit her brows. "The Palace Guard are a tough lot, particularly the air wing of the Palace Guard. There's a frightening lot of them."

"More than fifteen?"

"If all three regiments of the Palace Guard were mustered, the total would come to three companies of one hundred soldiers each. And along with them, an equal number of soldiers equipped with pegasi."

Suzu was rendered speechless. Youko's green eyes blazed. "But I shall not countenance this being done without my permission!"
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Chapter 76

20-2 The flags of the Palace Guard ringing the city had the citizens of the city in a high state of agitation. The Palace Guard was different from the provincial guard. People recognized the dragon standard as that of the Empress, bearing the authority of the Kingdom.

The Imperial Army has come to suppress the rebellion.

Voices of despair filled the streets. Even if they surrendered, the punishment would be severe. Fearing that not a single person would be spared, they prepared to flee. Koshou's and Kantai's mates were no exception.

Clearly, people said, the Empress was watching Shoukou's back. They had been mistaken, others cried in frustration. Anyway, they were the rebels, not themselves.

One regiment had already arrived, and the standards of two more could be seen behind them. Civilians rushed to the gates, claiming they were going to surrender to the Imperial Army.

"Earn the displeasure of the Empress, and it's all over."

"We didn't plan on going along with treason!"

"Earning the displeasure of Shoukou amounts to the same thing. Earn the displeasure of the Kingdom, and God knows what will happen."

They'd acted on their own and brought calamity upon Takuhou. These criticisms all fell on Koshou: "You've made things bad enough already!"

Koshou sat dejectedly in the guard tower above the main castle gate. "Why did they come here?" he asked. There was hardly a soul present. The reason was, it'd been heard whispered about that if Koshou's head was presented to the Imperial Army, the people of Takuhou could win some forgiveness.

"What do we do?" asked Kantai.

Koshou hung his head and sighed. "What does it matter what we do? Might as well open the Horse Gate and let escape those who want to." His tone of voice was casual, but there was no life left in his words.

"The moment you open the gate, the Imperial Army will come rushing through."

"Too late to worry about that now." Koshou looked up at Kantai, standing in front of him. "Kantai, everybody knows you're a hanjuu now. You'd better take your kitsuryou and get out of here."

"Hey, you calling me a coward?"

"Naw." Koshou smiled and looked around the room. "I just don't think there's any saving us. It's better not to get anybody else involved." He called out, "Tell the men securing the gate that as soon as they get here, they should get ready to escape. And watch out for the civilians. They're a little pissed at us."

"But, Koshou--"

"Even if we're to be executed as traitors, we've still got our honor. We can't keep everybody locked up like they're hostages."

"Koshou, wait!" Suzu cried out. "Don't give up so soon!"

"She's right," Shoukei agreed.

"Hold on a little while longer. They're waiting for us to give up without a fight. Otherwise, they would have attacked already. There's still time. It's not over until it's over. Don't rush to any conclusions."

Koshou took a breath and raised his head. A self-mocking smile came to his lips. "I'm the last one who wants to be thought a coward."

"It's not over until it's over," Shoukei and Suzu chorused.

Koshou and Kantai both narrowed their eyes suspiciously. "Speaking of which," Koshou said, raising his hand, "Where's Youshi?"

Suzu and Shoukei exchanged glances. Shoukei was the one who spoke first. "She's stationed at the Horse Gate. Even if you told her to open the gate, I don't think she would."

As Koshou opened his mouth to say something, a man came up the stairs of the guard tower. "Koshou!"

"What's up?"

"Some people are here. They say they represent the people of the city."

Everybody scowled at the prospect, but Koshou bigheartedly invited them to come up. Sekki moved over next to Koshou. Then everybody else did the same. They couldn't take any chances that their guests might be harboring funny thoughts about taking a shot at Koshou.

The party consisted of six middle-aged men. Representing them was a man by the name of Kakugo. "Don't get the idea that we're cooperating with you," he said dismissively. "We consider ourselves the prisoners of war of you rebels. We wish to be freed, and cannot abide being thought of as rebels like yourselves. You and your gang of outlaws--"

As Kakugo continued to cast aspersions on Koshou, the other five joined in. By the time Koshou had sighed in resignation, Suzu spoke up in a loud voice: "Enough already!"

Not only Kakugo, but Koshou and Kantai as well jumped in surprise.

"Didn't you despise Shoukou? Did you like the way he governed?"

"Hold your tongue, Missy."

"I'm not holding my tongue! If you're so willing to give Shoukou a pass, then you're no better than him! You've got no business coming here and whining about it. We'll hogtie you the same we did Shoukou!"

"Suzu--" Koshou said a bit severely.

Suzu returned the look. "And when did you turn into a mouse? You've got no reason to doubt yourself, listening to these fools." Koshou hadn't done anything wrong. And nobody was going to tell her the people of this city didn't hate Shoukou.

"I joined Koshou after Shoukou killed a boy who was like a brother to me. Shoukou ran over him in his carriage. Nobody blamed Shoukou. Nobody chased him down and dragged him from his carriage. I thought that was because you were afraid of him. But if that's not the case, if you're all willing to overlook his actions, then you're all my enemies! I'll forgive none of you!"

"Point taken, Miss. I'm not saying we didn't hate Shoukou, but we want to live." Kakugo declared, "We had no choice with a man like him but to bow our heads and go along! We're thankful that you've overthrown Shoukou, but we have no desire to throw our lives away. We love our families--do you think there's something wrong with that? You may have slain one beast, but the Empress is sure to appoint a bigger monster in his place."

"The Empress is not our enemy!"

Kakugo shouted, "Then what's the Palace Guard doing here? Are you saying the Empress would condone an insurrection in Takuhou? Is that what you're saying?"

"You're wrong!" Shoukei cried out. "The Empress knows what's been going on here. Do you know of the three beasts that prowl this Kingdom?"

Kakugo heaved a sigh and blinked several times. "Shoukou, the governor of Shisui Prefecture. Gahou, the Province Lord of Wa. And Seikyou, the Chousai."

"Hey," said Koshou. The rest of them as well looked at Shoukei with dubious expressions. Shoukei smiled at them in turn.

"That is indeed the case. The coin wrung out of Shisui flows into Wa. And what is collected in Wa fills Seikyou's pockets. In exchange for burning down the seminaries, sullying the name of the respected Marquis of Baku and having him expelled from the Imperial Court, and then attacking the rike, he gave them safe refuge. The provincial guard were ordered here for the same reason. If Shoukou or Gahou were ever arrested, things could get very dicey for Seikyou. That's why he sent the Palace Guard to Takuhou."

"How did you figure that out?" Kantai asked.

Suzu and Shoukei exchanged glances. "Because it wasn't the Empress who dispatched the Palace Guard. The Empress sympathizes with the plight of the people of Takuhou. It was Seikyou and Seikyou alone who sent them. That's why the Palace Guard are holding their positions outside the city gates and haven't attacked. They've got no legal orders to. They're hoping to cow us and wait us out and get us to surrender on our own."

"But--!"

"You see, Kantai, for as much power as Seikyou wields, there are equal forces arrayed against him in the Imperial Court. The Court is divided into two factions--for and against Seikyou. Do you think those opposing him will remain silent while he orders the Palace Guard around like they were his personal bodyguards? But if he only mobilized them and dispatched them to Takuhou he could always say it was a bluff. And if that results in a suppression of the rebellion, well, then another feather in his cap. But if it comes down to a fight, then even for a former Chousai, mere excuses won't suffice. The Palace Guard is the domain of the Empress alone."

"But they're going to attack any minute!" Kakugo yelled. "And when they do, it's all over! Don't you understand anything?"

"The Empress will save us. Please do not act prematurely."

Kakugo jabbed a finger in Shoukei's face. "What kind of reassurance is that? The Empress and Seikyou have probably been in this together all along!"

"That's impossible!" chorused Suzu and Shoukei. Neither could hold back a faint smile.

Kantai chuckled. "Well, the way you two are going on, it sounds like you're on regular speaking terms with the Empress."

Shoukei and Suzu shared a look. Shoukei said, "We are."

"You can't be serious!" Kakugo bellowed. "Since when are girls like you granted an audience with the Empress?"

Suzu was at a loss how to answer. Shoukei caught her eye, nodded, and spoke up instead. "You said it, Kakugo. It must strike you as quite odd that I should be granted an audience with the Empress."

"Of course it must!"

Shoukei bore down on him with her words. "My name is Shoukei, daughter of the Royal Hou, Emperor of the Kingdom of Hou. Do you think it odd that the Princess Royal of one kingdom should be granted an audience with the Empress of another? If you have any doubts as to the legitimacy of this my claim, then you may inquire of Gekkei, Province Lord of Kei. Ask him if he knows the Princess Royal of Hou, whose full name is Son Shou."

Kakugo and Koshou and the rest of them stared at her, opened-mouthed.

"My father recently passed away. I entreated with the Royal Kei and was invited to the Kingdom of Kei. The Royal Kei requested that I sojourn in Wa Province in order to ascertain the state of affairs here and report back to her. Through a strange set of connections, I ended up helping out Koshou here. But the Royal Kei is aware of all of this. She wishes to take this opportunity to arrest Seikyou. I can promise you that the Empress would not be pleased to hear you blaming Koshou and carrying on like rats deserting a sinking ship."

"This is nonsense!" Kakugo's face clearly showed his disbelief.

Suzu reached into her pocket. "Kakugo, read this."

Kakugo took the item the girl was holding up. It was obviously a passport. So? his expression said, and Suzu told him to look on the other side. Kakugo turned it over and visibly stiffened.

A seal in red and India ink. No, an Imperial Seal.

"In the Kingdom of Sai, I served Mistress Suibi on Mt. Ha. Having received permission from the Royal Sai herself, I set forth to the Kingdom of Kei to visit the Royal Kei. If you wish to confirm this, please direct any questions to Choukan Palace. That is, only if you doubt the veracity of this Imperial Seal."

Kakugo looked back and forth between the passport and the two girls. The girls smiled back at him. "Believe in the Royal Kei and wait. There is no way she will think the worse of you for doing so."



"You're a scary pair, you two," said Koshou, examining Suzu's passport. He handed it back to her and stared into her eyes. "What you just said, was that all true?"

Kakugo and his entourage had already agreed to wait and left the tower. The rumors were racing through the city, and if only in the slightest, the sense of fear and dread had begun to abate.

Suzu and Shoukei glanced at each other. Shoukei answered with a shrug. "As long as they believe it's true, it's true. The end results will not lie."

Koshou leaned forward quizzically. Shoukei waved her hand back and forth. "I don't really know if the Imperial Army will attack or not. But the air cavalry has not arrived, and no attack has come thus far, so I have no reason to believe I'm mistaken. What we must do is trust in the Royal Kei and wait. That is no lie. That is the complete truth."

"Okay, then!" Koshou slapped his knees. "Maybe it's one chance in a thousand, but we'll hold our positions along the walls."

"Koshou!" Suzu and Shoukei said together.

"I believe you two. We'll wait until the Royal Kei and her entourage arrives."

"Good." Shoukei sighed and looked out at the city. When she turned back to the Horse Gate, her eyes widened in surprise. "Suzu!"

"What?" Suzu came running.

Shoukei pointed out the window. "There!"

Koshou and the rest of them piled up next to the window. "It can't be!"



Everybody in the city was on pins and needles. The anxiety could be tasted in the air. The Imperial Army was fearsome. But so were the rebels. Those who wished it all to end feared an attack by the Imperial Army, and feared as well the retribution that would follow. Those who wished to flee feared reprisals by the rebels. In the end, they feared doing anything at all, the consequence of Takuhou being ruled for so long by the likes of Shoukou.

All the day long they looked up with apprehension at the walls. As long as there was no great commotion along the wall walks, then they could reassure themselves that things were fine for the time being.

A woman looked up at the walls for the umpteenth time, and her mouth dropped open in amazement.

"Look!"

Reacting to the sound of her voice, those around her looked as well. Along with the woman, their mouths opened and their eyes went wide with surprise.
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Chapter 77

20-3 Youko gazed from the guard tower at the surrounding countryside. She could clearly see the growing number of military units pitching camp among the hillocks bordering the fields. Though the army showed no signs of advancing, that didn't mean they did not intend to fight. The troops garrisoned along the wintry slopes were felling trees in the forest.

The Imperial Army was an intimidating sight, Shoukei had said. That may be so, but the provincial guard were the ones on the move. They were making siege weapons, a man in the guard tower pointed out.

"Starting now?"

"These siege weapons will be huge. They'll use whatever timber is available on the battlefield. If they don't need a large number, they'll get it done in half a day. As long as they've got wheels available, that is."

"I see," said Youko, returning her gaze to the countryside. In fact, the enemy army was not her concern. The sun slowly crossed the heavens. She searched the skies. Her patience was wearing thin. And suddenly, there he was.

"He's here."

"Eh?" the man next to her said, glancing at her.

Youko spun around and ran to the guard tower.



People along the wall walk stared up at the sky and gaped.

"But what is it?"

"It has to be--"

The voices arose in ones and twos. Hands were raised and fingers pointed at the sky.

"Why is it here?"

"But that's the--!"

It wasn't a youma or a pegasus. It was not human. It was some kind of beast. Its body resembled that of a deer, with a coat of glowing amber and a mane of gold. There was no one in the Kingdom of Kei who did not know what it was. They would have seen the paintings in the shrines and temples and in the government offices.

"The kirin."

Youko made her way through the astonished crowds. The circumstances notwithstanding, she raised her voice. "Keiki!"

He flew low through the air and landed on the wall walk. Voices cried out, voices suffused with fear, surprise, even joy. Youko pushed through the crush of people and ran to the creature.

"Keiki! You got here!"

"You have beckoned me to such a place as this?" he asked, clearly aghast at the surroundings. "The smell of death is quite pungent."

"Sorry. My bad."

"So this is what happens when you tell me not to worry? You have dragged my shirei through all this grime as well?"

"Listen, you can bitch to me all you want later. For now, take me to the encampment of the Palace Guard."

"You're asking me to comport myself as an ordinary pegasus?"

"I seem to recall that mustering the Palace Guard is your responsibility."

The purple eyes met Youko's, and then turned away.

"C'mon, Keiki. Just a bit more patience. Please." She knew Keiki was exactly the last person she should ever bring to a battlefield. He would truly suffer carrying her, she was spattered with so much blood.

"Let us depart, then." He turned his magnificent head toward the countryside. Youko climbed onto his back.

"Youko!"

The cry came from the base of the walls. She recognized Suzu and Shoukei looking up from the street, waving at her. Youko hardly had time to smile in return before Keiki leapt into the air. As he sprinted toward the flags of the Palace Guard, he said in a quiet voice, "The child lives."

A smile rose to Youko's face.



The troops situated along the borders of the fields looked up as one into the sky and gaped. General Jinrai, leading the Palace Guard Regiment of the Left, was no exception.

Why? he asked, catching his breath. Why was a person riding on the back of the kirin?

It wasn't enough that someone was riding the kirin, but that someone pointed straight at Jinrai--and the battle flags--and flew toward him. He unconsciously took a step backward.

I can't go along with this. Mobilizing the Palace Guard is a risky business.

Go! the Defense Minister had ordered him, and Jinrai had not refused. With the minister dropping Seikyou's name right and left, there was no way he could refuse. He wasn't about to lose rank over something like this.

On the other hand--

The holy beast closed on him, a red-haired lass of sixteen or so astride its back. Now Jinrai understood who she was. The Regiment of the Left had accompanied her to the coronation ceremony and to the receptions immediately following it.

The kirin stopped in the air no more than a few yards off, hovering above the dragon standards. The rider's gaze fell on him like daggers. At the same time her crystal clear voice called out, her anger evident.

"Jinrai!"

At the sound of his name, Jinrai retreated another step. A stir went through the surrounding soldiers, who showed all signs of heading for cover themselves.

"On whose authority have you come to Takuhou?"

"I--ah--"

"Show me your orders!"

He had to concoct some reason, some excuse, something--but he couldn't find the words to speak. His thoughts raced yet found no purchase. She's just a girl, he'd thought. Another mediocrity like the last empress. But then where did this vibrant sense of power and authority come from, that made him quake in his boots?

"When did the Palace Guard and its generals resign their commissions and become a gang of self-employed mercenaries?"

"Your Highness, I--"

"And when did your Commander-in-Chief become Seikyou! Tell me you intend to attack Takuhou on Seikyou's orders and I'll have you all branded traitors!"

Jinrai and the surrounding troops could nothing but stand there, rooted to the ground.

"What are you doing?" The kirin's eyes turned on Jinrai. "What are you doing, still standing in the presence of your liege? I heard no leave given."

Jinrai's willpower crumbled. He quickly sank to his knees. Following his lead, the troops knelt, touching the ground with their foreheads.

"Jinrai--"

"Yes!" Jinrai answered, his head brushing the earth.

"I am now giving you a direct order, an Imperial Rescript. Take command of the Palace Guard and march on Meikaku. There you will arrest Gahou, the Province Lord of Wa, and rescue Enho, the superintendent of Kokei in the Province of Ei. He is currently being held against his will in the provincial castle."

"Understood!"

"You will then dispatch a regiment to Gyouten and take Seikyou into custody. Arrest Gahou and Seikyou, and free Superintendent Enho without further incident, and I'll forget this ever happened, both the actions of the Palace Guard and the Wa Provincial Guard."

"By my word, it shall be done!"
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Part XXI (Chapter 78)


uzu watched as the creature and its rider alighted upon the wall alongside the Horse Gate.

"A kirin."

"It is," came Shoukei's voice.

"I wonder if it's right to bring a kirin to a place like this."

The question of how to deal with the solid wall of humanity surrounding them was written on all their faces. Suzu hadn't the slightest idea herself. She wanted to call out to Youko and run to her, but that didn't feel like the right thing to do.

As they all hesitated, Youko bid the kirin goodbye and turned around. "Hey, everything's going to be fine."

Her smile broke the ice. Suzu and Shoukei quickly crossed the short distance between them.

"Everything's okay? Really?"

"The Imperial forces, too?"

"I dispatched them to Meikaku with orders to arrest Gahou."

"Yes!" Suzu and Shoukei cheered together. But the people standing stock still behind them still gaped in amazement.

"Koshou! Didn't you hear? Everything's going to be fine!"

"Kantai! The Imperial Army will take care of Gahou!"

The two big men blinked in bewilderment. At last, the moment broke. Kantai was the first to sink to his knees.

"Your Highness."

In a flurry, everybody else copied him. Koshou remained standing, staring flabbergasted at the kneeling crowd. Sekki called out, "For heaven's sakes, brother, bow!"

"I, ah, but--"

Youko couldn't help giggling at the sight of the poor, confused Koshou. "No, you really don't have to. C'mon, everybody. Stand up."

Of course, nobody dared lift his head. Only the befuddled Koshou remained standing.

Youko said, "I am sorry that my incompetence should have caused the people of Takuhou so much distress, and wish to apologize to them." She turned to Koshou. "And to Koshou and all his kith and kin, I express my heartfelt thanks. In Shoukou's very shadow, you never gave up the good fight and remained true to the cause. You did what I could not, and for that I am grateful."

"Well, you know, it was nothing."

Youko smiled and looked out over the crowds. Heads were popping up here and there. "And to Kantai and his loyal band, I offer my deepest regards. If there is anything you desire, please tell me now."

Kantai lifted his head with a start. "May I truly ask anything of Your Highness?"

"Anything at all."

"Well--" Kantai said, glancing on the two men flanking him, and then at Youko. He again bowed his head. "I wish to dispel any doubts about the dismissal of Marquis Koukan, former Province Lord of Baku. I ask you to please receive the Marquis at Court!"

"Koukan--" Youko couldn't hide her surprise. "Kantai, are you a citizen of Baku Province?"

"My name is Sei Shin, former general in the Provincial Guard of Baku. And these are two of my regimental commanders--"

The two men Kantai indicated bowed deeply as well. One of them spoke up. "Pardon me, Empress, but I regret to inform Your Highness that soon after the pretender usurped the throne, my troops surrendered to her army. Given the opportunity to wipe away that disgrace, I followed General Sei here."

"I see," said Youko, gazing down at the three bowed heads. Of course, Kantai was no ordinary person. He was here with his comrades-in-arms, who had once been his officers. And now that she thought about it, Kantai's mates had always showed him the greatest deference.

"There is something I wish to ask you, first. Did you gather here in Wa Province on Koukan's orders?"

"That is indeed the case."

They had met once before at her coronation, but Youko couldn't remember his face. But based on the men he had gathered around himself, she could imagine what kind of a person the Marquis was.

"Kantai, I wish you to express my appreciation to Koukan for all he has done. Tell your lord that if he can find it in his heart to serve this foolish empress, then I would indeed ask him to visit Gyouten as soon as possible."

Kantai lifted his head and for a moment looked up at her face before bowing once more. "Upon my word, it shall be done!"

Youko nodded and walked over to Koshou, who still seemed completely at sea. She patted him on the arm and pointed at the guard tower. "Why don't we open the gates? There's no need to keep them shut any longer."

"Ah, right," said Koshou, with a big grin.

As he hurried along behind her, she glanced over her shoulder and asked, "Is there anything you'd like, Koshou?"

"Nothing comes to mind. Just seeing Shoukou brought to justice is enough for me."

"Nothing at all?"

Koshou smiled a bit sheepishly. "This here's all I've been thinking about." He stopped walking and Youko paused as well. "Am I going to be punished?"

Youko sighed to herself. "Why would you think that?"

"I made a pretty big mess of things around here."

"Well, if I punished you, Koshou, then wouldn't I have to impose those same penalties on myself?"

"Yeah, I guess so." Koshou grinned. "Oh, that's right!" he said, looking at her. "Now, I'm just asking you as a good mate, see, as a fellow soldier who ate out of the same pot with the rest of us. But there is a small favor I'd like to ask of you."

"What's that?"

"You being some sort of real important person and all, I was thinking maybe you'd know the right people who could make it happen. I was just wondering if you could arrange for Sekki to get into a good school in Ei Province--?"

Watching this exchange, Suzu and Shoukei burst out laughing. Even Youko couldn't keep a straight face.

"Eh? What'd I say?"

The ramparts filled with warm laughter brighter than sunlight.
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Chapter 79

21-2 The second regiment of the Palace Guard sent to Meikaku returned to Takuhou five days later.

Youko had stayed behind to help put the ship of state aright in Takuhou. But she eventually got fed up with the people of the city prostrating themselves at her feet right and left and confined herself to the castle compound. There she could converse at ease with Suzu and Shoukei as they inventoried the weapons and prepared meals for the wounded. Koshou was the same old Koshou. Having fought the long battle alongside her from the beginning, Koshou's mates grew relaxed around her as well, and went back to calling her "Youshi" the same way they had before.

Kantai and his lieutenants remained on a more formal basis with her, but that was no doubt because he was a general in the military and it was too late to teach that old dog new tricks.

"The Imperial forces approach!" came the shout from one of the turrets.

Youko climbed to the top of the castle wall in time to see a horse-drawn wagon entering Takuhou. She ran toward the main castle gate. The wagon stopped as soon as the driver recognized Youko. He climbed down and bowed deeply, then helped a small man off the wagon.

"Enho."

Enho turned his gaze from the soldier to Youko. "Well," he said, his face breaking into a smile, "I see you're doing well."

"Are you all right?"

Enho nodded, and his eyes darkened. "Rangyoku and Keikei?"

The question was like a dagger in her chest. She buried her face in her hands. "Rangyoku, she--"

A big hand thumped down on her shoulder. It was Koshou. He pointed at the middle gate. "Don't keep the old guy standing around chatting like this. Find a place to sit down."

Youko nodded, and Enho's eyes narrowed a bit. "I believe we've met once before."

"You were a great help to my little brother."

"And how is he?"

"Doing well, thank you. I'd like to bring him by later, if you don't mind. He's been wanting to see you again."

"I look forward to it."

Koshou bowed and continued on toward the main gate. At Youko's urging, she and Enho headed to the middle gate.

"I'm really sorry."

"What are you apologizing for?"

"I wasn't at the rike when I should have been. If I had--"

"How is Keikei?"

His soft query stung her ears. "He's in Gyouten. He seems to have made it through the worst."

"I see," said Enho, with an understanding nod. "It's not your fault, Youko. You should stop tormenting yourself about it. If anything, it was my responsibility. They were aiming for me, after all."

Youko lifted her head. "Why would Gahou--or Seikyou--wish to harm you?"

"Well--" said Enho, hanging his head, "I previously lived in San County in Baku Province."

"At the Evergreen Seminary, you mean?"

"So you've heard about it?"

"Then you were there?"

Enho flashed her a self-deprecating smile. "I was. Seikyou made overtures to me there, overtures I rejected. That was the beginning of the trouble."

"Obviously, Seikyou--"

"The Imperial government had uses for the seminary, he said, and we were all to become his underlings. Seikyou is a crook at heart. Cooperating with him could only divert us from the Way. I consulted with the superintendent of the seminary and urged him to turn down Seikyou's offer. As a result, many people lost their lives."

Enho's shoulders slumped as he walked.

"Did they hurt you in any way?"

"I'm as well as I need to be. Don't worry about me. My resolve was to stay fast to the Way, not to sacrifice so many innocent lives in the process. What is such a personal resolution worth, then? Even at my age, this is a question I cannot answer."

"Indeed."

"Now and then, more than teaching the Way, I have to believe that tilling the land or taking up arms to fight would be more meaningful. Look what happens when I try to stay above it all and only teach. The farmer who plants in the spring and gathers his harvest in the fall sees a far greater reward."

"But haven't you been sowing seeds of righteousness among the people all along?"

Enho looked up at Youko. "I see. " He sighed and smiled. "Even living as long as I have, some things take a while to sink in. But a young piece of work like yourself gets it right off. There's no need for you to think so little of yourself."

"I suppose so." Youko hung her head for a moment, and then nodded. "There's something I like to ask of you, Enho."

"What's that?"

Youko stopped in the courtyard. "I'd like to invite you to the Imperial Court and appoint you Lord Privy Seal."

Enho laughed heartily. "What, put an old fool like me in charge of the Sankou?"

"I need a tutor."

"True," Enho said. "After all the pains the Marquis went through to find me a place to live, I suppose there wouldn't be much point in going home again. But if you'd like me to be there, I'd happily come."

"Thank you very much."

"Okay, then," Enho said with a nod.

"Did the Marquis attend the Evergreen Seminary?"

"He did. I wasn't teaching at the time, but the principal brought him along. I taught him as I taught you. He was a good student."

"I really have to apologize. I swallowed everything Seikyou told me, hook, line and sinker, and dismissed Koukan."

"Simply admitting that goes a long way in clearing up the misunderstandings." Enho smiled. "Saibou will be happy to hear it."

"Saibou?"

"The chief minister of Baku Province, also an alumnus of the Evergreen Seminary. When Koukan was relieved of his post, so was the chief minister. After that, they became wanted persons. Nevertheless, he visited me several times on Koukan's behalf. I believe you met him on at least one occasion."

"Eh?"

"He came to the rike. The next day you asked me who he was."

The man who wore the veil. "Oh, so that was Saibou?"

"Yes. It was good meeting an old student, but painful seeing such a promising student brought so low. And it undoubtedly caused Rangyoku and the others a great deal of distress."

Youko looked up at the sky. "But why?"

"Who knows? I think it was just one misunderstanding following another." He tilted his head to the side.

"Still, it's good to know you're okay. I worried that you'd been injured."

"Oh, my injuries were nothing to be worry about. In any event, I'm a fast healer. The brigands who attacked the rike were pretty surprised. That's why they took me with them."

"How's that?"

Enho smiled and didn't answer her directly. "Well, at any rate, it'll be nice to see Kinpa Palace again."

"Enho Sensei--"

Enho chuckled. "When the time comes, though, you'd better use my proper name, Otsu."

"Otsu Sensei?"

Enho nodded. "I was born in Shikin, San County, Baku Province. The present-day city of Shishou. My full name is Otsu Etsu, also known as Rou Shou." Enho laughed heartily. "King Tatsu used to call me Count Shou."

"Eh?" Youko leaned forward with a puzzled expression. Enho only continued to smile back at her.
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Chapter 80

21-3 "Are you going back?" Suzu asked Youko. Suzu and Youko and Shoukei were staying in the servants quarters in a corner of the castle compound. They were getting ready for bed.

Youko nodded. "I've been away for too long. Keiki is starting to take it personally."

"Yeah. You're probably right."

"I've finally made up my mind. There's still a lot of stuff I can't make heads nor tails of, though."

"It's tough being Empress."

Youko nodded again. Suzu and Shoukei exchanged glances. Youko asked, "So what are you two going to do next?"

"Eh?" said Suzu, her eyes widening. Shoukei quizzically tilted her head to one side.

"You came here to see me, right? And so you did."

"Ah--" Suzu and Shoukei said together.

"Indeed. What to do next?" queried Suzu. Shoukei remained lost in her thoughts.

"You never thought about it?"

"Never crossed my mind," said Suzu. "Though I ought to go back to Sai at least once and express my gratitude to the Royal Sai."

Shoukei stared at the ceiling. "There are people I need to thank and apologize to back in my home country. But I fear I'm still persona non grata there." Then she laughed. "Oh, I do have a promise to keep. I need to take a trip to En."

"A promise?" asked Suzu.

Shoukei smiled. "I promised Rakushun that I'd see him again and give him a report about what happened."

Youko furrowed her brow a bit.

Shoukei said, "What's wrong?"

"I suppose news about the unrest in Wa Province has reached En."

"Undoubtedly it has. Rakushun pays close attention to the goings-on in other kingdoms."

"He's probably worried," Youko said. "Be sure to tell him all about it. But make sure to emphasize that things were resolved in a less-than-disastrous manner and he can sleep easy." Youko rolled her eyes toward the heavens. "If you can, you might want to play down my actual part in what went on here."

Shoukei giggled. "I understand."

The soft laughter filled the room. The conversation momentarily came to an end. Youko suddenly blurted out, "I've still got a problem that needs solving." When Suzu and Shoukei turned to her, Youko tilted her head to the side and asked, "What makes for a good kingdom?"

"A kingdom without any bastards like Shoukou in it," Suzu quickly replied.

Youko smiled thinly. "I get that part, but . . . what kind of lives do you wish to lead? And what sort of kingdom would you wish for in order to accomplish that?"

Shoukei and Suzu thought about it for a minute. The first one to open her mouth was Shoukei. "I hate cold and hunger. That's what made life at the rike so tough. And I'm hardly one to talk, but I hate being treated badly, and being treated with contempt."

Suzu nodded. "I agree completely. It's great to stop having to put up with stuff like that. Because when you are putting up with it, it makes you feel so small."

"Yeah. You just curl in on yourself."

"Sorry," Suzu said, "but I don't think we're answering your question."

As if thinking about something else, Youko shook her head. "No problem. I'm only looking for advice."

"Really?"

Youko nodded, and then said with less certainty, "At any rate, you've told me what you're going to do next, but what about after that?"

Suzu and Shoukei exchanged glances. Shoukei was sitting on the bed, her arms around her knees. She stared at her hands. "I want to learn more. I'm so stupid about everything it's embarrassing."

"Me, too," Suzu chimed in.

"I don't necessarily mean going to school and all. I mean learning about everything wherever I find it. It's too bad the Everygreen Seminary isn't around any more."

"You want to study--" Youko smiled. "How about this, then? I've asked Enho to be Lord Privy Seal and my tutor. What do you say you both come to work at Kinpa Palace and let Enho teach you there?"

Suzu and Shoukei gaped at her. "Hold on, you're saying--"

"Serious?"

Youko looked at them. "Right now, I could use all the help I can get. Even one more pair of hands will make all the difference." She glanced from Suzu (who seemed to be holding her breath) to Shoukei.

"What about Koshou and Kantai?"

"Of course. I want to find a place for them as well. I absolutely need people I can trust inside the palace, every last one of you."

Shoukei heaved a great sigh. "Well, you can't fight fate. I'm willing to give it a try."

"I'm in. You could ask for the moon, Youko, and you know we couldn't turn you down."

"For the moon?"

Suzu giggled and Shoukei unsuccessfully stifled a laugh. Youko couldn't help but join in. Their gentle laughter echoed off the walls of the small room.
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Afterword


youten, the capital of the Kingdom of Kei. The Empress had finally returned from her "study abroad," to a palace bathed in the warm rays of the sun.

For the next five days, she secluded herself within her chambers. The former Minister-in-Chief, Seikyou; the former Province Lord of Wa, Gahou; and the former governor of Shisui Prefecture, Shoukou, were arrested. The Empress herself signed the warrants, to the great amazement of the ministers. Some objected, but could hardly voice their objections to the Empress, who would not even venture into the inner court.

During the Empress's absence, the Privy Council had fallen into disarray. Behind the scenes, some plotted and conspired, fearing that their sins might be revealed, dooming them to Seikyou's fate. But for the time being, such scheming played out in the shadows and behind closed doors.

The Imperial Court will be thrown into chaos, the ministers whispered amongst themselves. Losing Seikyou meant the balance of power would be thrown to the anti-Seikyou faction, and that was where they all considered shifting their allegiances as well.

Those five days saw a constant tumult of rumors and shifting expectations. At last the Empress emerged and assembled every minister and bureaucrat of note in the Gaiden, the outer palace.

The ministers gathered in the Gaiden were startled to see there the unfamiliar face of the previously-dismissed Province Lord of Baku, Koukan, along with his entourage. The Gaiden buzzed with excitement. When the Empress appeared, escorted by the Saiho (Keiki) to the throne, the state of confusion was only heightened. The Empress wore ministerial dress no more elaborate than what the ministers wore. Having shunned her imperial robes, this monarch, whose name had been recorded in the Census of Heaven while she was barely yet a woman, somewhat deflected the inherent scorn directed against empresses.

Their doubts and confusion notwithstanding, the ministers bowed, touching their foreheads to the floor. At the same time, a voice rang out, "Raise your heads!" They knelt and straightened their backs.

"To start with, I would like to apologize for my long absence."

With no introduction from the Chousai, the Empress simply began to speak. The ministers' confusion only grew. Long-established custom held that the Empress did not speak to her subjects and her subjects did not speak to her. Rather, written notes would be passed to the chamberlain, she would read them and then whisper her response in the chamberlain's ear. The chamberlain would then repeat her words to her subordinates. Of course, no kingdom followed this custom to the letter, but in any event, no ruler spoke so directly to her subjects.

"I did not intend to waste so much of your time. I am sorry for taxing your patience."

She paused.

"I will not say much about those individuals arrested several days ago. It is the duty of the Ministry of Fall to bring their sins to light and exact the proper penalties. However, I advise them to keep in mind that I personally signed the arrest warrants."

Not a few ministers caught their breath. No one doubted that this thinly-veiled threat was a direct challenge to the Ministry of Fall: if they tried to go easy on the defendants, grease a few palms, and look the other way, they'd have to answer for their actions.

"A while back, I asked the Saiho to mobilize his provincial guard. It didn't happen. The generals of his provincial guard seem to be suffering an unfortunate and chronic ailment. That being the case, because carrying out their duties must be an onerous burden, I am recommending their early retirements."

Even more started reactions this time.

"In order to fill the vacant posts, I have made requests of four individuals. First of all, the commanders of the Palace Guard will be transferred to the aforementioned provincial guard."

Voices were raised in protest: "Surely you jest!"

The Empress ignored them. "In their place, I hereby appoint Sei Shin, former commander of the Baku Provincial Army of the Left, regimental commander of the Palace Guard of the Left. Kantai."

"Yes!" The general deeply bowed his head.

"As for the generals of the Center and Right, I will act upon Kantai's recommendations. Kantai, please put the Imperial Guard in order."

"By your command, Your Majesty."

"Koukan."

"Yes."

The voice of the man who spoke was young. He was a bright and sagacious man of around thirty. Everyone there thought incredulously: This is the Province Lord of Baku?

"I hereby appoint you Chousai. Please put the Imperial Court in order."

"You can't be serious!" rose many voices in objection.

Again, she ignored them. "I hereby appoint Saibou, the former Baku Minister-in-Chief, Province Lord of Wa. Furthermore, I have summoned Count Shou to the Imperial Court, and hereby appoint him Lord Privy Seal. Together with these appointments, you may expect that a goodly number of ministerial positions will be shuffled accordingly."

The Empress looked over her audience. "Those of you with clear consciences have no cause for dismay. Having been ministers of the Late Empress Yo does not mean you will be treated poorly, just as having graduated from the Evergreen Seminary does not mean you will be accorded unwarranted favor either."

Poised on the throne, the Empress said, "Everyone stand!" The room buzzed with confusion, the ministers glancing at each other as they timidly got to their feet. The Empress scanned the assembly. She nodded and turned to the Saiho at her side. "This is something I wish Keiki to make note of as well."

She said, "I do not care to be worshiped in the customary manner."

"Your Majesty!"

The Empress had to smile at the sound of the Saiho's scolding voice. "It is certainly pleasing to hear respect paid and gratitude expressed, but I do not like the ranking and ordering of human beings. I cannot abide greeting someone and not even being able to see his face. I understand the need for a society's rules of decorum and propriety, but being kowtowed to and watching people kowtow to others leaves a bad taste in my mouth."

"Your Majesty, please hold on a moment!"

She shushed him and addressed the ministers. "Henceforth, with the exception of established rituals and ceremonies, and receptions for guests of honor from other kingdoms, kowtowing is abolished. It will be sufficient to bow while either standing or kneeling."

"Your Majesty!"

To the Saiho's attempts to restrain her, the Empress curtly responded, "The matter is settled."

"There are people who may feel they are being disrespected and become enraged."

"And what of them?"

"Your Majesty!"

"I do not understand people who cannot feel secure in their positions without forcing others to grovel before them."

The Saiho was speechless. The ministers simply gaped with open mouths.

"I do not understand what pride means to people like that. What's worse, whenever a man's made to scrape and bow, it eats away at his self-esteem. That's a problem just waiting to happen."

"But--"

"You know, Keiki," the Empress said to the Taiho, "when you're really grateful to somebody, when you feel real respect for them, you bow your head naturally. You bow your head to show what's in your heart. But simply going through the motions provides no measure of a man's soul. Turning such a bow into obeisance seems like placing your foot on the back a man's head and grinding his face into the dirt."

"But people must be taught by example."

"I do not intend to encourage insolence. We should treat others with respect. That should be obvious. What I'm saying is, when it comes to those who lack the character to do so, there's nothing more that can be done by means of coercion."

"That is true, but--"

"I wish to be Empress to all the people of Kei." Her voice was loud and clear. "You need only look to Shoukou to see the fate of those who use their position to force their subjects to respect them and trample the rest under their feet. And the road taken by those who allow themselves to be so trampled should be clear as well. No man is anyone's slave. No man is born to be a slave. Those who are oppressed yet do not yield; who face disasters yet do not break; who suffer injustice yet do not fear to answer injustice with justice; who are ruled by beasts yet do not fawn at their feet--these are the kinds of free people I wish the citizens of Kei to become. We are all the captains of our own souls. And that command begins with holding our heads high in the presence of others."

She finished speaking and looked out over the audience of ministers, bureaucrats, and functionaries. "You have asked me down which path I wish to lead this kingdom. Have I given you a sufficient enough answer?"

Only their eyes looked back at her. No voices responded.

"By your assent, then, the act of kowtowing is hereby abolished. This I proclaim as my Inaugural Rescript!"
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From The Chronicles of Kei
The Annals of the Red Child

n the Second Month of the Second Year of Sekiraku, a Revolt arose in the City of Takuhou, Shisui Prefecture, Wa Province. The Prefectural Governor, Seki On, a cruel Tyrant, lusted after Wealth, burdened the People with heavy Taxes, waxed full of Pride, and ruled the Countryside by the Sword.

The Peasantry feared and resented the Tyrant even as they served Him, seeing and hearing no Evil, yet holding Malice in their Hearts.

At long last, in the Second Month, the publically-spirited Citizens of Takuhou raised the Banner of Shu On and rebelled. The Province Lord of Wa set forth to destroy Takuhou. Supporting Him in this Course of Action, the Taisai forged Orders and dispatched Troops to Takuhou.

Her Highness, by Means of those same Soldiers, struck back at the Marquis, stripped the Taisai of His Rank and Privileges, and brought Peace to Takuhou.


END OF SECOND BOOK
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