e don't have a name for ourselves," Koshou said, drawing water from the well. Next to him, Suzu rinsed out the buckets and jugs. "We number no more than a thousand. Most of us are in Shisui Prefecture."
"If you need something in the city, search out a person wearing this ring. Ask him where he's from. Guaranteed, he'll acknowledge you with an eshaku."
"Like this." He had Suzu hold out her hands and make a fist with her left hand, then grip it with the right hand. She then raised her hands together and bowed. This was how people of stature greeted each other. To properly perform the eshaku, though, you should be wearing long sleeves. The jacket Suzu was wearing only came to her wrists.
"It feels funny."
Koshou smiled. "All that really matters is that you confirm that the person you're looking for is wearing a ring without drawing attention to it. When you ask where he's from, if he answers, Shikin in San County, Baku Province, then he's your man. If he asks your name, you say you're Otsu Etsu of Rou Shou."
"What's that mean?" Suzu asked with a quizzical expression.
Koshou chuckled. "Shikin is an old place name. Hundreds of years before, during the reign of King Tatsu, a wizard named Rou Shou showed up in Shikin."
"Was Shikin the location of his grotto?"
"No. Rou Shou didn't have a grotto. He was a wizard who gained his powers through the exercise of his own will. So he can be called Rou Shou or Shou Rou. This class of wizard uses the prefix Rou, meaning elder or old man. He's also called Count Shou."
"Oh, so he's a Senpaku, a self-made wizard who's an earl or count."
Wizards who had risen to the rank of count, and who had attained that rank by means of their own effort, also served at the Five Sacred Mountains. They were the Senpaku.
"He had been practicing his craft for the general public when King Tatsu invited him to serve in the Imperial Palace. His full name is Otsu Etsu. Nobody really knows if he existed or not. He shows up in legends and stories a lot."
"You may be asked the same things from a complete stranger. If someone else with a ring approaches you with these questions, you answer the same way."
"Oh, I see."
"If they're one of us, you can trust them, no matter what. It's guaranteed they'll help you. Our word is our bond. We take pride in it."
"All this in order to get rid of him?"
"Of course," Koshou nodded. "The countryside around Takuhou is crowded with graves. The bodies of the dead cover the land. Somebody has to take him down. Somebody has to bring him to justice."
Suzu stopped what she was doing. By him they mean the governor of Shisui Prefecture, Shoukou. She asked, "Why is someone like him allowed to get away with it?"
"It's said that there are people in high places who give him a pass."
"Like in Gyouten?" said Suzu, raising her head.
Koshou answered with a startled look. He put down the well bucket and sat down on the edge of the well. "Why do you say Gyouten?"
"A rumor I've heard to that effect. The most important person in Gyouten is protecting Shoukou."
"I see," Koushou muttered. "That certainly is being rumored about. It's said that none other than the Empress is protecting Shoukou. But I'm not convinced."
"It's not true?"
"I couldn't say. The one giving a free rein to Shoukou is Gahou."
"The Marquis of Wa Province. Shoukou's got the protection of the province lord. That's why he has a free rein. The Marquis is no less a beast than Shoukou. The only difference between them is, as villains go, Gahou is not as blind as Shoukou to appearances."
"The Late Empress Yo-o made Gahou Marquis of Wa. She was not competent enough to withstand him, and so he purchased it with his flattery. Protests were lodged, appeals were made, arms were raised in resistance, but she continued to indulge him."
"Even after the Empress acceded to the throne, he was left in power. There are those who don't believe he enjoys the support of the Empress, but it's not hard to believe. It was thanks to her that the Marquis of Baku was dismissed."
"The Marquis of Baku?"
Koshou stared up at the sky above the small courtyard. "The Marquis of the province to the west of Ei Province. The Marquis of Baku was greatly admired by his people. He is rumored to have been a wise and knowledgeable ruler. This past summer, before the Empress had claimed the throne, a pretender arose and cast the kingdom into turmoil. He resisted her to the very end."
"And for that he was dismissed? While Gahou and Shoukou remain?"
Koshou nodded. "Many people have their doubts about the Empress. None of us understand why the Marquis would be dismissed while Gahou is left where he is. On the other hand, the coronation was only recently. She may not be able to do anything about it."
Suzu sloshed the wash water out of the pail. "Doesn't seem to be much difference between this empress and the last one."
"Maybe so." Koshou gave her a good long look. "What exactly did you have in mind for the Royal Kei?"
Suzu averted her gaze. Koshou took a surprised breath. "You are one to act without thinking. Did you really have it in mind to go charging into Kinpa Palace? There's no way you could have pulled that off."
"You'll never know if you don't try."
Koshou pushed himself off the edge of the well and leaned over next to her. "That kid died in a bad way."
Suzu looked back at him, then looked at her hands.
"I hate to say it, but you can find unfortunate kids like that everywhere. They're hardly rare in this kingdom. This is a kingdom still in chaos. There are tragedies all over the place."
"Yeah. I know," Suzu said with a sigh. "I'm a kaikyaku."
"Yes," Koshou acknowledged with his eyes.
"I was thrown into this world where I could never go home again, I didn't understand what anybody said. I was truly pitiful."
"But I wasn't truly pitiful. Compared to Seishuu, I was really lucky. I didn't understand that and kept on feeling sorry for myself and insisted on bringing Seishuu all the way here."
"You shouldn't blame yourself like that."
Suzu shook her head. "I was really lucky. Oh, I've been in a tight spot or two, but a little patience and a backbone were all I needed. I never imagined someone like Shoukou causing so much suffering for so many people. I really can't stand myself now." She laughed. "It was really a temper tantrum. Instead of taking it out on myself, I tried taking it out on Shoukou. Like Sekki said, I really do hate myself. But--" she said, raising her head, "we can't let Shoukou be, can we?"
"No, we can't."
"I don't know about the rest of the kingdom, but Shisui is an accursed place and the people here suffer because of it. I want to make it so nobody suffers like that anymore. I want to make it so nobody ever dies the way Seishuu died."
"The fact is, I don't trust myself. I don't trust what my own pain and bitterness are telling me to do. But if you and Sekki hate Shoukou enough to want him dead, then it is okay for me to hate him, too?"
"Yeah . . . sure." With a shrug, the big man crouched down next to the well and sighed, self-effacing smile coming to his lips. "To tell the truth, I don't get it myself."
"If you can put something painful behind you, it's over. But being alive means there'll be no end to bad things happening. Still, worrying about every little thing gets you nowhere. Good things happen, too. Forget the bad and you can enjoy the good. You gotta keep putting one foot ahead of the other."
Suzu nodded and Koshou continued. "Honestly, I don't understand government and politics, complicated stuff like that. Whether or not Shoukou is a decent governor, I'm not one to say. Same with Gahou, same with the Marquis of Baku. Maybe Shoukou has some importance to the government. Maybe even a guy like that is useful to someone. But as for me, him being alive makes me tired."
"Makes you tired?"
"I'm a simple guy. When I hear about kids getting killed who did nothing wrong, I get mad. And getting mad makes you tired. It's hard to forget something that just rubs you the wrong way. Sekki's better at it than me. He went right from the county to the prefecture school, and even got into the district academy. His elementary school principal gave him a recommendation. There was nothing stopping him from becoming a government official. I gotta think he's got a bright future ahead of him. But I really can't say that makes me happy. So he becomes a government official, then what? If he gets into the government, is he gonna get used by Shoukou? Fall in with Gahou? I can't get excited about my little brother hanging around with people like that."
"Koshou . . . . "
"Sekki doesn't like it either. Even though he was interested in it, he quit. There are bad things you can't forget even if you want to. Things you can't be happy about even if you want to. Being that way wears me out. I hate it. Being alive is not enough. You want to feel good about life, right? You want to believe, hey, I'm glad I was born, I'm happy to be there. But as long as there are people like Shoukou around, I can't feel that way. That's why I gotta do something about it."
Suzu took a breath and let it out. "That's it?"
"That's it. If I thought I could storm the prefecture castle and kill Shoukou and put my mind at ease, I'd do it. But it wouldn't put my mind at ease. In the first place, I never could do it. When it comes to dealing with Shoukou, the only way I can think of is to approach him in numbers and force him from office. And if he said, over my dead body, well, then we'd have to oblige him. Anything I came up with on my own would be a waste. I haven't got enough self-discipline."
"I've got a temper like a kid. Sekki's the one to think things through."
Suzu laughed. "I perfectly understand where you're coming from."
"Yeah?" the big man smiled.
"Is there anything I can do?"
"Well, we need to borrow your sansui. We're collecting weapons. We can't go up against Shoukou and his bodyguards with shovels and hoes."
"So you need to transport some cargo?"
"Rou Hansei, a long-time friend of mine, is getting a shipment ready for us. Would it be okay for you to take your sansui there and back?"
Suzu nodded firmly. "Sure. No problem."