12-4 Wa Province was east of Ei Province, stretching from the eastern border of Ei to the Kyokai. Along with Keiki, Youko was traveling to Meikaku, situated in the eastern quarter of the province. A large highway reached straight across Kei from the Kyokai to the Blue Sea. A second major route ran southward from the Koushuu Mountains. The roads intersected at Meikaku.
"Meikaku is an important overland stop," Keiki said.
Using the shirei, the journey took two days. They landed not far from Meikaku and walked the rest of the way.
"This road is the lifeline to the northern quarter of the kingdom. The terminal city of Goto is the only real port that Kei has on the Kyokai. Salt and rice shipped from the south, medicines from Shun, wool and barley from the north, all of these must be purchased with the surplus from agricultural harvest and supplied to the northern quarter to keep the people alive."
"The northern quarter is that poor?"
Keiki nodded. "It is a mountainous region with little arable land. It is dry during the summer, with a long rainy season starting in the fall. The harvest all depends on the weather, but there is no other industry they can turn to."
"Especially now, with shipping traversing the Blue Sea from the south largely at a standstill, Goto has become even more critical. On top of that, there is but one port of entry between En and Kei along the Koushuu Mountains, hence the importance of Gantou to the overland routes and Goto to the sea routes. Cargo coming into Kei from either must necessarily use these roads and pass through Meikaku."
"Could Wa Province be wealthy, despite being in the northern quarter?"
Keiki smiled sardonically. "It is said that highwaymen prowl the roads of Wa. In order to protect cargo shipments, Wa dispatches the provincial guard to build forts and protect the caravans. Because it is paid for with excise taxes, the cost of goods rises accordingly."
The unfortunate truth was that there was no way to avoid Wa Province when shipping anything from Gantou or Goto.
"Gahou certainly knows his business."
Keiki scowled. "I think not. There are big cities bordering Meikaku to the north and east that warehouse cargo and house travelers. They're called Hokkaku and Toukaku, and while part of Meikaku they are much bigger than Meikaku. Farmland was procured and leveled, tall walls constructed, and these cities were built from nothing just to house merchandise and people. The people who use those cities shoulder the entire burden. The people of Wa do the work. They're worked like slaves."
Youko said in exasperation, "Why should a man like Gahou be made a Marquis of as important a province as Wa?"
Keiki lowered his gaze. It was the Late Empress Yo-o who had given Wa Province to Gahou. Gahou presented her with a garden on the outskirts of Gyouten. It was a garden the size of a hamlet. Passing through the gates, you were presented with a scene of rustic beauty. A row of six homes, an old man who served as gamekeeper to the deer, a child to feed the pheasants.
Gahou gave Yo-o this beautiful little hamlet, in which the empress could live out her dream of a quiet, uneventful existence. She visited it often, and in thanks gave Gahou whatever he wished. That was how Wa Province came into his possession.
The empress surely was happiest when chatting with the villagers, trimming the grass in the gardens that surrounded the hamlet, teaching the children embroidery in a house built for that purpose. Would things have turned out differently, Keiki wondered, if she hadn't been able to indulge herself so. Every time he pled with her to return to the palace and she wept and refused and carried on, her eventual fate drew inexorably closer.
He should not have put her on the throne. It was not right for her, but the divine oracles had directed him to her. No one else was possible.
A soft voice called out to him. Keiki quickly collected himself. His new lord peered up at him, her head tilted quizzically. "What's up?"
"Oh, nothing," Keiki said, shaking his head. He raised his head and looked across the countryside. A mountain stream ran alongside the highway. Ahead of them was the soaring Ryou-un Mountain. You could see the walls rising up at its base.
"That looks to be Meikaku."
Meikaku Mountain pierced the Sea of Clouds. The gently sloping hills gathered about the foot of the mountain. The city snaked along the valleys beneath the ridgelines formed by the hills.
"This is the capital?"
Youko stood at the gates of Meikaku and looked down the main boulevard, a broad avenue almost devoid of life. The imperial and provincial capitals had eleven gates. District and prefectural capitals had twelve. In the case of the imperial and provincial capitals, the central north gate or Rat Gate, was left out. In its place, just north of the city was the Ryou-un and the imperial and provincial government offices.
Youko and Keiki entered Meikaku through the western or Rooster Gate. The main boulevard ran straight east seven hundred paces from the Rooster Gate to the municipal offices in the middle of the city. The street was a good hundred paces wide. In every other city, small shops lined the street making it much narrower, and the street itself would be thronged with people and wagons. But there wasn't a single shop in sight.
There was no evidence of the refugees camped out in the surrounding countryside. There were none of the impoverished and homeless people they had seen in every town and city they had passed along the way during the three days, traveling by means of Keiki's shirei. The place was lifeless. Not a store, not a roadside stall. No crowds coursing along the thoroughfares.
A number of the travelers who entered the gate with her looked over the wide street with equal surprise. Youko glanced to the right and left as she passed through the gate. A sullen man approached, walking through the gate with accustomed steps. Youko called out to him, "Excuse me."
The man stopped and turned his blank gaze to her.
"Something going on today?"
The man was carrying a heavy basket on his back. He cast a disinterested look at the street and then back to her and said with sleepy eyes, "Naw. Nothing."
"Yes, but it's almost nightfall."
"Nothing out of the ordinary here. If you're looking for an inn, better go to Hokkaku or Toukaku. For Hokkaku, go to the Boar Gate. For Toukaku, go to the Hare Gate."
He spoke curtly, and in a low voice. He swayed a bit, as if adjusted the load on his back, and then turned on his heels and without another word walked away.
It was not uncommon for cities to have a second or third much larger city appended to them. She had seen quite a few of them in En. The entire metropolis was often given a single name, but the appended cities were known to keep their original names as well.
"What do you think?" Youko asked under her breath.
Standing next to her, tying a bandana around his head, Keiki tilted his head and said, "Well. It is a bit too quiet."
"Yeah. I could understand there being no people here, but no stores or shops either?"
Surveying the shoulders of the avenue outside the gate as well, there was not even a pushcart to be seen. A few people here and there, the sound of the wheels of the occasional horse cart echoing in the empty air.
"Something happen?" asked the people who had just come through the gate.
Youko smirked unconsciously. "Yeah, I had the same question."
The other party was a group of three men. They looked across the wide boulevard, the confusion evident on their faces. "Is this Meikaku?"
"I've never seen a capital city this empty. You two from here?"
Youko shook her head. The men gave the street another puzzled examination. "No shops. No people."
"Something bad went on here?"
"If there'd been a disaster, they'd be flying a white flag."
When disaster befell a city, white flags were flown from the ramparts. With this forlorn sight in front of their eyes, travelers would know something had happened. But that didn't seem to be the case here.
They watched the men start guardedly down the street. Next to her, Keiki said, "I smell death."
An unpleasant expression briefly clouded his pale complexion. "This city is a swamp of human malice."
Youko spun around. "We're leaving."
"Your Highness?" he replied.
Youko glanced back over her shoulder. "There's a road through the countryside. The cities are to the north and east, right? There should be access from the outside. I'm not chancing going through the city and stressing you out."