don't recall giving you anything."
Shoukei sat, bound in cords, in a jail in Ryuu. The jail was so cold that frost was forming on the walls. The rat had been arrested along with her.
"I'd appreciate it if you could tell me what's going on."
Shoukei didn't answer. She didn't have a good answer. Accused of a frightening crime, she had abruptly blamed another person. That's all it came down to.
"What's your name?"
The guilt weighed so heavily on her mind, she tossed off the answer without thinking.
"Shoukei . . . that wouldn't be the name of the princess royal of Hou?"
Shoukei unconsciously nodded.
"Her full name is Son Shou, her azana is Shoukei."
"I . . . . "
How was it that a hanjuu from En would know such things? The imperial family's name was not widely circulated. The surnames of such high status individuals were not loosely bandied about.
"Rumors had it that you'd died, and rumors that you lived."
"Who are you?"
The rat stroked his whiskers. "My name is Rakushun. An ordinary student."
"Ordinary students ride suugu pegasi?"
"Like I said, it's a loaner. Are you being pursued because you're the princess royal?"
Shoukei didn't reply. She remembered what had happened to her the last time she'd confessed who she was. "If there's something on your mind, go ahead and ask me."
"I think you have more to worry about than me."
Shoukei flashed a crooked smile. "You know why I'm in jail? Because when you screw up, you get crucified."
Rakushun tugged on his whiskers. "Crucifixion? I guess that is what they do in Hou, the only kingdom that executes a criminal for the crime of theft. In fact, Hou has already repealed that law."
"It seems that the Royal Hou was quite the disciplinarian. Theft was a capital offense. Stealing gold or specie from the royal family merited death by the flogging. In the case of gems and jewelry, crucifixion. Stealing food got your head placed upon a pike. Have I got that right? But only in Hou. Normally, it's a hundred lashes. In Ryuu, it depends on the crime. A hundred strokes with the cane and ninety days of hard labor, I believe."
Shoukei looked at the rat in surprise. He was conversant in the laws of other kingdoms. This knowledge was the province of government officials. And, in fact, there were few even among those charged with enforcement of the laws that were well-versed in the penal codes of other kingdoms.
She explained this and asked again, "You're really an ordinary person?"
"An ordinary student. Any school student from En should know as much."
Shoukei again looked at him with wide eyes. In Hou, there was one secondary school per province. The one national university admitted no more than a hundred students, so becoming a university students was no small feat. Upon graduation, you would become a civil servant or a high public official. Many dreamed of being accepted, but there were those who would take the entrance exam every year of their life and never pass.
"A child like you? How old are you?"
Rakushun's whiskers drooped. "I'm always mistaken for a child. Well, no matter. I'm twenty-two."
Shoukei blinked. It was not impossible but he would still be improbably young. It was not simply a matter of first qualifying for the selection process and then passing the entrance exams. You would also need the recommendation of your secondary school principal. It was not rare for students to be over thirty.
"That's quite impressive." This rat had it made. A comfortable life as a government bureaucrat. Shoukei had nothing. Not a thing. Only to wait for her trial, tied up in this jail.
"Well, getting arrested like this isn't exactly a good thing. I'll probably end up being expelled."
Shoukei looked at the rat. If he was indeed a college student, not only his intelligence, but his integrity had been called into question. Of course, if you were punished according to your crimes, he would undoubtedly be expelled.
However, Shoukei remembered, she would probably be extradited to Kyou, there to enjoy the scorn and punishments of the Royal Kyou. And it was likely that her punishments would be more severe than what was normally called for. This rat hardly stood to lose everything he had, while Shoukei had only her life left to her. One slip and she'd lose that, too.
"Well, I wonder what's going to happen next? So what happened to you? Why did all those Ryuu soldiers come storming into our room?"
Shoukei wouldn't answer the question. She turned her back and slumped back against the wall and closed her eyes, showing she had no more inclination to talk. From behind her, she heard a small sigh.
She feigned sleep but could not sleep. Trembling, she passed the night till dawn. The next day she was dragged out of jail. As she was hauled to her feet, she cast a glance back at the jail. From inside the jail, the rat leaned forward and gave her a fixed look.
The jail was in the depths of the city hall. Shoukei had no idea whether this city was located in district or prefecture or county or anything else. Criminal cases were prosecuted in county and provincial courts, but a jail could be located anywhere.
Shoukei was escorted to the main chamber of the city hall and, still bound, sat down on the floor. A fat, middle-aged man sat on the rostrum in front of her. The jailers seized Shoukei by the binding cords and forced her to bow till her forehead touched the floor.
"The princess royal of Hou, Son Shou."
"No, I'm not. I could not possibly be such a personage as that."
The man smiled quizzically. "Is that so? We have word from the Royal Kyou herself that the princess royal of Hou stole objects from the imperial palace and fled the country. We also received notice of a warrant being issued by the empress for her arrest. The Royal Kyou kindly provided a catalog of the stolen articles, which together with the warrant was delivered by carrier pigeon. How do you explain that most of the articles listed in the catalog were found amongst your belongings?"
"They were . . . given to me." Her head pressed to the floor, she had to spit out the words. "The hanjuu I shared the room with, he gave them to me." Shoukei made the assertion, guilt heavy on her mind. I'm sorry, but there is no way I can go back to Kyou.
The man on the rostrum roared with laughter. "Do you really think that anybody here actually believes such lies?"
"Of course, it's exactly what a naif like the princess royal would say. She steals from the imperial palace in Kyou and flees the kingdom, stupid enough to stay in inns along the way. Instead of abandoning a conspicuous animal like a kitsuryou, she takes it along with her. Goods she should have pawned at once, she instead carefully hides in her luggage."
Shoukei bit her lip. She truly had botched it from the start. She had been so happy to be free that she had left common sense by the wayside.
"And all you stole were a few trinkets and baubles. How like a girl. A very silly girl."
"Kensei," a voice addressed the man on the rostrum. A kensei was a county court judge, meaning she was in a county court. "Would the princess royal have done such a foolish thing? It stands to reason that this girl is not the princess royal."
"That is a possibility," the judge agreed cheerfully. "Of course not. The truth must lie elsewhere. I shall ask her again. Are you the Princess Royal Son Shou?"
"I'm not!" she screamed at the floor, grasping at this one last straw.
"So the real princess royal forced these items upon you, and did so in order to mislead her pursuers. But would she have given such hard-won treasures to a complete stranger? No, not likely. So, what is it, miss? Were these items really given to you? Or did you steal them?"
Shoukei couldn't answer.
"Raise your head and look me in the eye. Are these stolen goods?"
Shoukei raised her head and looked into the red face of a man wearing a complacent smile. "No . . . they are not."
"And were they given to you? If they were, what kind of person is this, running around bestowing such idiotic alms on complete strangers? Or rather--"
The judge's voice softened to a coaxing purr. "Or rather, isn't it true that they've been yours all along? Afraid that your possession of them would be thought incriminating, you said they'd been given to you? It was mere coincidence that they happened to resemble the items in the catalog, when in fact they have nothing whatsoever to do with the booty spirited away from Kyou."
Grasping the direction in which he was steering the conversation, Shoukei nodded. "Yes."
"Yet aren't such fineries a bit too rich for a girl like you?"
"But . . . they're mine . . . really."
"Doubtful. Still, we're busy around here. Things to do, places to go. We simply do not have the time or resources to go around investigating every little suspicious incident. Once the court has been compensated for the costs of your confinement, you shall be released."
The implied deal now clear, Shoukei recoiled inside. The man was asking for a bribe. The clerks and officials in the courtroom were all snickering as well.
She said, "Sir, if you could find it in your heart to pardon the inconveniences I've imposed upon the court, I should want to leave the items in my satchel and the kitsuryou to your honor's safekeeping."
"Is that so?" The judge slapped his knees. "You are indeed a young girl familiar with the ways of the world. We shall set aside the complaint. Any resemblance between your goods and the aforementioned catalog of items is declared purely coincidental. It would of course be untenable to take them into custody if they were the property of the Royal Kyou, but as they are yours by declaration, I do not see a problem."
"They are mine," Shoukei stated, flashing an understanding smile at the judge and court officials.
"Understood. You shall be released upon your own recognizance. The court hereby takes into custody the kitsuryou and the remainder of your personal goods. Your bags and purse shall be returned to you. You are free to go."
"I thank the court."
Shoukei bowed her head, hiding the emotions that flooded to her face.
Shoukei collected her bags and purse from the bailiff and staggered down the freezing, windswept street.
She had not only been spared her life, but would not be sent back to Kyou. Her hard-won treasures, however, had been stolen out from under her, along with the kitsuryou. And that wasn't all.
Shoukei put her hand into her pocket and found there her much lighter purse. The hairpin she'd given to the inn had been confiscated. When returning the purse to her, the bailiff said that her account at the inn had been settled with the contents of her purse.
But even left penniless was many times better than being sent back to Kyou, or so she told herself as she adjusted her leather overcoat and wrapped her shawl around her neck.
But what do I do now?"
In her bags she had a change of clothes and some jewelry she had bought the other day. If she hocked it all for cash, just how much further could she go? In order to get to Kei, she'd have to go to Tai and get her hands on a passport. But to get to Kei in the first place, she'd have to board a boat from Kei bound for Tai. And she didn't have enough to cover her travel expenses for more than five days.
What if she traveled on foot and stayed in the cheapest inns? And if that didn't work, she'd have to travel while groveling for free lodging along the way, begging for day labor, and generally relying on the kindness of strangers. It wasn't something she had ever believed she could do.
At a complete loss as to what to do, Shoukei exited through the gates of the town hall, hanging her head.
"So you're all right, then," a voice called out to her.
Shoukei looked up in surprise and saw the rat there holding the reins of the splendid suugu. "You . . . . "
"I was wondering how things turned out and came over to see how you were doing. It looks like you cleared everything up."
Shoukei spun around and walked off in the other direction. The sound of footsteps soon came pattering after her.
"What it came down to was, I pay a bribe and all is forgiven. The result was, they took everything I had." Shoukei spat on the street. There was no sense in taking it out on the rat, but the happy-go-lucky expression on his face irritated her.
"Strange," he said in a low voice. Shoukei turned to him. He said, "To think that the government officials of Ryuu would even make such demands."
"These ones did. There's nothing unusual about it. In every world and every kingdom there are people who brandish power to line their own pockets."
"But Ryuu is renown for its constitutional government. The Royal Hou also tried to emulate Ryuu in the creation of the national polity."
Shoukei stopped walking.
"Far more laws were promulgated disciplining the bureaucracy than the citizenry, though Hou differed a bit in the actual implementation. The public servants of Ryuu should not act corruptly. Laws forbid it. And you're saying that a county court judge so brazenly asked for a bribe? It does all begin to make sense."
"That the system charged with monitoring the bureaucracy is itself breaking down. Shoukei, you said you wanted to go to Tai? And you intended to depart from a port in Ryuu?"
Shoukei laughed derisively. "I don't have enough money to travel directly to Kei."
"I would advise against it."
Amidst the hustle and bustle of traffic headed toward the main gate, the rat lowered his voice. "Youma are appearing in the Kyokai."
"I heard that yesterday."
"Half of them are coming from Tai, but the other half are coming from the shores of Ryuu."
Shoukei stopped again and looked at the hanjuu. His black eyes looked back at her. He said, "Ryuu is on the decline."
Shoukei thought this over for a minute. The Royal Ryuu had ruled his country longer than the Royal Kyou. Already, his reign had passed a hundred and twenty years, and he was said to be an enlightened monarch. Shoukei had always thought of the nearest three kingdoms, Han, Kyou and Ryuu, as inviolable. These had been stable kingdoms since the time she was born.
"So what's your next step?"
Suddenly asked this question, Shoukei turned to face Rakushun. Without really knowing what she was doing, she stepped out of the pedestrian traffic moving along the street.
"My next step?"
"Didn't you say you wanted to go to Tai? And all your stuff got ripped off. So you've got no travel money, right? I'm going to wander around Ryuu for a bit and then return to En. If that's okay with you, want to come along?"
Shoukei gaped at him. "You're kidding me. You mean, take me to En?"
"To Kankyuu, if you don't mind. But I am going to have to ask you to hoof it for a while."
"Are you stupid? Didn't I almost get you framed for theft?"
Rakushun laughed. "Not at all. I didn't think I was going to be charged. The endorsements on my visa do carry a bit of weight."
"That's not the problem."
He laughed again. "These kinds of fortuitous encounters seem to be my destiny."