7-3 The kitsuryou galloped effortlessly through the sky. Shoukei looked down at the landscape and felt a heavy weight lift from her chest.
This is the only way to go.
She would hardly be meekly returning to the orphanage or becoming a servant again. From the start, she had determined to free herself and run away. She was never going to kowtow to anybody ever again.
Shoukei headed straight for the Black Sea, arriving at a town along the coast before the gates closed. There she sold an earring, fixed up her clothes and got a room. The sensation of silk against her skin after so long, a luxurious meal, a bed made up with embroidered quilts. She went to sleep, checking her urge to shriek aloud with delight.
The next day she sold another earing and flew off toward the Black Sea
A kitsuryou could cross a kingdom in two days. She passed over the featureless borders and entered Ryuu. There she got a room. The following day she headed north along the coast. Before evening, she had arrived at Haikyou, a port town in the central part of the kingdom. She was now closer to En than to Kyou.
The kitsuryou's reins in hand, she passed through the big gate. The gate was covered in a carved floral pattern. The walls were punctuated with a series of latticed skylights. Lanterns hung from the eaves, lighting the cozy forecourt that spread out from the middle of the gate. It was a large inn.
A man came running out to meet her. To Shoukei question he smiled and bowed low. "There is a fine room available, m'lady."
"Good," said Shoukei, smiling sweetly in return. "I shall stay here, then. Please look after my kitsuryou."
A groom hurried over and took the kitsuryou's reins. A bellhop undid the luggage from the saddle and the groom led the kitsuryou to the stables next to the gate. Shoukei went from the forecourt into the building through the gated entranceway.
Immediately inside the doors was a large parlor. Tables were generously spaced along the walls at which the guests sat and conversed together. To the concierge who walked up and bowed, Shoukei took a silver hairpin from her fashionably done-up hair and held it out to him.
"Should this cover everything?"
Because travelers did not like carrying large amounts of cash with them, payment was often in kind. Large inns always had a small shop where personal items could be exchanged and where accounts were settled. If the payment proved excessive, upon checking out the balance was paid in coin. The concierge took the hairpin and confirmed its workmanship with an enthusiastic nod of assent.
"It is quite sufficient. I shall deposit it against your account."
"If it is not enough, please let me know."
"Thank you very much. Shall you be eating dinner tonight?"
In the smaller inns, there was always a tavern open to the street, and the rooms on the second floor. The larger hotels served meals in the restaurant facing the courtyard or in the guest rooms. The guest rooms in a small inn were for sleeping only: beds set up on a wooden floor, and a sink to wash your face, if you were lucky. Many inns did not even enjoy those accommodations. Cheaper establishments simply had a bunch of cots lined up on a dirt floor, with not even screens separating them. You slept together with complete strangers.
Beds in an average hotel had canopies and curtains, along with a sink and a small table. In a fancy hotel like the one Shoukei was staying at, you had two bedrooms in which to make yourself at home, and a living room where dinner could also be served.
"I'd like a room."
"In fact," said the concierge, a concerned look on his face, "a ship just came into port. We have many guests and no single-occupancy rooms. Would you mind sharing a room?"
A hotel of this class would definitely have two bedrooms per room, and so was set up to handle double-occupancy reservations. If there weren't enough vacancies available, double-occupancy rooms were converted into shared rooms.
"Are there no other options? I wouldn't want to end up with some yahoo."
"I am indeed sorry. We would be happy to arrange for you to stay at another hotel, but I'm afraid they are all booked as well."
"I guess it can't be helped."
"Unfortunately, not in this case. If you would please follow me, I shall show you to your room."
Shoukei was shown to a room on the third floor. They walked down a corridor that overlooked a small courtyard and arrived at a room toward the back. It was hardly the best room in the place. In these types of buildings, the higher you went, the lower the ceilings became. Besides, the best rooms faced the gardens.
"Here is the room."
The room he stopped at was in a wing in the back of the hotel. The beautiful fretwork on the door was glazed with glass, revealing the interior of the room. Behind the door was a living room arranged with furniture of above-average quality.
Opening onto the living space were two wide doors. These led to the bedrooms. The key fitted the bedroom door. There was no key for the door into the living room, as it was not considered a private room. This was how double-occupancy was accommodated.
She handed some change to the bellman who delivered her luggage to the room, and sat down in a chair in the living room.
"What a stupidly prosaic room." A smirk came to her lips.
She didn't feel even a twinge of guilt. The Royal Kyou had it in for her and had driven her to this, and so what was so bad about giving her a taste of her own medicine? The Royal Kyou could lose any number of her personal accouterments and hardly notice a thing missing. At any rate, she'd probably inherited most of it, and so Shoukei had "inherited" it in turn from her.
"If I take it easy on this trip, I should get to Kei in six days."
The capital of Kei, Gyouten. The capital of the eastern kingdom that the Royal Kei now occupied. Once she got there, then what? She had to start somewhere. In order to get close to the Royal Kei, she had to get into the imperial palace. And that wouldn't be easy.
Shoukei didn't have a passport that could vouch for her identity. She'd left behind the papers given her in Hou. She'd heard that there were officials who would forge passports for a price, but she had no idea where to find the kind of corrupt bureaucrat who could do such a thing.
Getting into the imperial palace in Kei with only a passport was far from impossible. The empress had only recently acceded to the throne and so there was likely a considerable turnover in the staff. Shoukei was cultured and educated. If she expressed a desire to serve the empress, the odds of her getting hired were good. At the same time, after so short a time on the throne, the empress would no doubt be lonely. No matter how many officials and bureaucrats she was surrounded by, somebody genuinely nice would no doubt catch her eye. She was perfectly capable of sucking up to the Royal Kei. She'd wait for the chance, and strike.
And besides, she knew the workings of an imperial palace inside and out.
"But maybe I should go take a look at Tai."
In a kingdom that had lost its king and was in chaos, you probably didn't need a passport.
The Royal Tai had acceded to the throne two years before Hou changed governments. Not more than half a year later, an imperial rescript was issued to all the Twelve Kingdoms announcing the king's death. The rescript was delivered by the new king. But an imperial rescript was hardly required when the king of another kingdom died. A phoenix bird in every imperial palace would sing forth, making the announcement. The phoenix birds had remained quiet in regards to the Royal Tai. There was no doubt about it: when Shoukei was living at Youshun Palace, the phoenix bird hadn't uttered a peep about the demise of the Royal Tai.
If the king lived, there was no reason for a new king to arise. Clearly, this was a pretender. In fact, nobody really knew what was going on in Tai. Kingdoms tended to keep their internal affairs to themselves.
If they had lost their king, then Tai was in the same predicament as Hou, and there was no way she was going back to Hou. For the time being, she muttered to herself, Tai it is.
"So, where are you headed?" asked the waiter who brought dinner.
Shoukei looked down at the dishes being placed there and furrowed her brow.
The table was being set for two. She'd be eating with some complete stranger. She made a face. Answering the waiter's call, she saw someone came out of the other bedroom--apparently they'd been in there all along--and lowered her brows. Bad enough that she had to eat with a stranger, but he was a--
A person born half a beast. There weren't a lot of them, but neither were they scarce. In Hou, a hanjuu would never be caught dead in an establishment like this. And in beast-form, certainly would never be allowed into the courtyard.
As if he did not see Shoukei sitting there, brows fully furrowed, he bustled into the room and said to the waiter, "Thank you!"
He had the voice of a child. In the form of a rat, he was no taller than a human child, as well, but was wearing a man's tunic. He tipped the bowing waiter and sat down.
As if finally seeing her there, he said, "Hi."
"Hello," Shoukei replied under her breath.
"Surprising at how many guests there are. I wonder if these arrangements are common in Ryuu?"
Shoukei didn't answer. It was bad enough, simply having to sit at the same table with a hanjuu. She averted her gaze.
"Today is unique," said the waiter. "A ship arrived from En. Were you aboard that ship?"
The hanjuu said, "Oh, gotcha."
"About half of our guests disembarked. And about half will be reboarding. And where are you headed?"
"I thought I'd see the capital."
"Ah," the young man smiled. "Wonderful place. The lilies are beautiful. Though you've chosen to travel during the cold part of the year."
"It's not so different from En."
"Is that so?"
"En is pretty cold, too. It's further south than Ryuu, but catches the seasonal winds."
The young man turned to Shoukei. "And where will you be going next?"
"Tai," she said shortly.
The waiter's eyes opened wide. "But Tai--"
"Is in turmoil, I know. That's why I'm going. People I know live there. I've been worried how they're doing."
"Where in Tai?"
Shoukei's heart skipped a beat. "And why should you want to know?"
"Oh, no reason," the young man answered, with a nervous laugh. "I was originally a sailor on a ship that sailed between Ryuu and Tai."
"We shipped grain to Tai, carried gemstones on the return voyage. Tai is pretty short of grain. But we didn't make it last time around. There were so many youma, we never got near the place."
"It's pretty scary when a kingdom surrounded by the Kyokai falls into chaos. The youma who live at the bottom of the ocean rise to the surface, and before you know it you're completely isolated. In fact, this winter, I have no idea how the people of Tai are going to eat."
He didn't pose the question as if expecting an answer, so Shoukei instead thought about Hou. Hou was in the same predicament. Even after cultivating the land, the harvest yielded only enough for people to scrape by on. If a harvest failed for any reason, there wouldn't be enough to go around.
"Was your friend able to get out of Tai?"
"I hope so."
"So many people are trying to flee Tai. Most of them come to Ryuu. Our last cargo was mostly people. There were so many people flooding into the port, wanting to leave Tai so badly they were clinging to the gunwales. We had to take them on board. If we didn't, they would have capsized the boat."
"Long story short, it's a dangerous place. Sea traffic is closed. I got my parents to help me come here. There are colleagues of mine there still waiting for a ship."
"Good thing you've got a kitsuryou. It looks like no ships are sailing for Tai. The news from En as well is that sea traffic to Tai has been suspended."
Shoukei's eyes opened wide. "You heard I came on a kitsuryou? Already?"
The young man laughed. "A rare thing it is for one of our guests to arrive on such a splendid pegasus. Well, not really, I guess." He turned to the rat, who was politely finishing his dinner. "Your suugu tiger is even more impressive. It's the first time any of us have seen a suugu, so we've all been stopping by the stables to take a look."
The rat stroked his whiskers. "Well, not so impressive. It's a loaner."
Shoukei looked at him. With a mount so impressive, in spite of his being a hanjuu, of being a child--for that's what she thought he was--that's why he was being treated like a man.
The waiter said, "But the sky is plenty dangerous as well."
Realizing the statement had been directed at her, Shoukei quickly nodded. "Yes, I . . . . "
"Perhaps you had best go on to Kei."
"Warships still manage the journey from Kei to Tai to rescue refugees."
"People from Kei bring in refugees to cultivate new land. In exchange, they're registered on the census and are given a plot of land. When I was traveling to Tai, ships from Kei periodically left Tai with refugees. There aren't so many opportunities as before but I still think they're doing it, so getting a ride with them is probably the best way."
"You think so?" Shoukei just managed to check her delight. Go to Tai. Wait for a ship and return to Kei. Get registered on the census and head for Gyouten. It'd be easy. "That's good advice. Thank you."
She meant it from the bottom of her heart.
From Tai to Kei. Satisfied that there was light now at the end of the tunnel, Shoukei returned to her bedroom and went to sleep. With a brazier to warm the room, she slept warmly and comfortably beneath the embroidered futons.
She was awakened in the middle of the night by a knock at the door.
"Who is it?" she said, frowning. That rat no doubt had something he wanted her to do.
"Excuse me." It was the young man who had served them dinner.
Shoukei sluggishly got out of bed, put on a robe and went to the door. "What's this about?"
"Something I remembered about Tai."
Shoukei unlocked the door. She was debating whether or not to open the door when it was abruptly jerked open. Shoukei recoiled, cowering. Standing in the living room was the young man and a number of soldiers wearing blue armor.
"What?" Her heart pounded in her chest. She somehow managed to ignore her racing pulse.
"Let's see your passport."
The blood drained from her face. "What are you talking about? At this time of night! We can take care of it tomorrow."
Her throat was dry, making it difficult to raise her voice in protest. The soldiers pressed into the room and surrounded her.
"Where's your passport?"
Her knees began to shake. "Truth is . . . I lost it."
"Gyokuyou. Son Gyokuyou."
With an expressionless face, the soldier looked at her and then at his colleague. "You've got a kitsuryou, huh. Where'd you get it?"
"I . . . I don't recall."
They regarded with great suspicion. She bit her lip. She had said the first thing that came to mind and it was a lousy lie, if she said so herself.
"Search her things."
"Stop it! You can't just do whatever you please!"
As she raised her voice, Shoukei felt that this was the end. She had finally made it to Ryuu, and the Royal Kyou had reached out her hand after her and taken her into her clutches. Her gaze flitted about the room. She had to get away, but soldiers held her by both shoulders. Even if there were means of escape, there was no way to run.
The soldiers went to the bedstand and pulled out a small satchel secured with a leather belt. They opened it, and from amidst the clothes pulled out the delicate fineries.
One of the soldiers was holding a piece of paper, and checked each item off against a list. "A decorated belt, a gold buckle with the emblem of a phoenix dragon. Phoenix bird earrings. A string of jade pearls. They're here." He turned to Shoukei. "You're missing two sets of earrings and a hairpin. Where are they?"
Shoukei couldn't answer. She was trembling too violently to speak. She'd be arrested, she would answer for her crimes and be judged. Finally, it dawned on her. Why hadn't any of this occurred to her until soldiers were walking all over her?
The penalty for theft . . . Shoukei searched her memory and goosebumps came out on her skin. Crucifixion. You were tied down to the road and nails driven into your body until you died.
"Hey, what's going on?"
The door to the room opposite opened and the rat stuck his head out. He rubbed his sleepy eyes. Shoukei jabbed her finger at him. "I don't know anything about it! He gave it to me!"
"What?" The rat cast a stunned look at the soldiers.
"It's in my room."
The soldier checked his travel documents and folded them back up with a disinterested expression. He jerked his chin toward the door.
"Let's go. The both of you."