13-2 "This is Meikaku."
The driver dropped Shoukei off at the gates to the city. She looked at the ramparts in surprise. The haphazard state of the walls alone was a shock.
"What a strange city," she observed as she paid the driver.
He laughed scornfully. "That's what everybody says."
"I thought city walls were supposed to run in straight lines."
"Yeah," the young man said, gazing up at the walls.
The walls of a city as big as a provincial capital were normally wide enough to post sentries along the top. Merlons in the battlements provided cover for archers posted behind the parapets. Here and there structures called bastions ("horse faces") jutted out from the walls. Bastions were built in all shapes and sizes, but for no particular reason they were usually rectangular and of a fixed height.
But here at Meikaku, such regularity was hard to find. The wall would run along for a while at an impressive height and then suddenly dip down so low you could see the wall opposite. Some bastions were joined together by wall walks hardly wide enough to walk over. These structural undulations continued on like the untutored scribblings of a child.
Shoukei looked over her shoulder at the young driver. He again laughed sarcastically. "The only inns are in Hokkaku or Toukaku. Originally, the inns were in a bunch of warehouses outside the Boar Gate. They built a big wall around them and every year it gets bigger. Kind of a mess, huh? It's even worse inside, because the old walls were left in place. Try not to get lost."
"Thanks," Shoukei said.
The driver regarded the city walls with a nonplused expression and returned to the horse cart. Shoukei peered at the main gate. A big tunnel was carved into the wall. The gates were adorned with nothing more than a plain-looking pair of doors. The plate above the gate simply read, "Meikaku."
Like the driver had said, a crude rock pile of a wall obstructed the way. At the base of the wall, canvas tarps were stretched over jumbles of wooden planks to form a tent city crammed with huts and sheds barely big enough to lie down in. The overflowing crowds of people, their faces glum and ragged, pressed up against the gates. The refugees had built themselves a village in the vacant land that one good gust of wind would blow all to kingdom come.
When she stepped inside the city itself, its decrepit condition became even more apparent. She had to wonder how many laborers had been pressed into hard service building these pointless, meandering walls. Some were so squat and narrow that they appeared to have been dumped there as refuse. And the others were amazingly high and thick.
The streets zigzagged through the chaotic city, ending in blind alleys. Shoukei had never seen such a confusing place. Buildings built without any rhyme or reason. Horse carts haphazardly blocking the flow of traffic. Milling crowds of refugees only throwing everything into complete chaos.
"What is with this city?" Shouko said under her breath.
She noticed people casting apprehensive glances in one particular direction. A number of them passed by her with tight faces, heading down a road that apparently ran to the city center. One man walked forward with a hard expression on his face. Another man turned back against the flow of people, looking fearfully over his shoulder as he headed in the opposite direction at a brisk clip.
What is going on? she asked herself.
Shoukei headed in the same direction, craning her neck to see. She turned a corner. The people moving in that direction had unexpectedly multiplied. Before long, the surging tide of humanity made retreat impossible.
"You'd better stop."
The sudden sound of someone's voice calling out to her made Shoukei turn back, even as the human wave bore her along. From within the throngs, an old man turned to her and held up his hand.
"You'd better not go. You're gonna see something you don't want to."
"What?" she wanted to ask, searching her surroundings, but the river of people bore her along with them. Before she knew it, she had come to the main boulevard of the city.
It was the center of the city. More than a boulevard, it approximated a town square. The streets abruptly opened up into a plaza surrounded by crumbling walls. Soldiers were posted around its circumference. In the center were a number of people tied together.
The thing she didn't want to see.
The people paraded to the center of the plaza were secured with ropes around their waists. Eyeing the brawny men securing the rope, Shoukei could tell that something was about to happen. The thick wooden posts arranged on the ground only reaffirmed this conviction.
A crucifixion. Those people were going to be nailed to those stakes. There are places other than Hou where this punishment is exacted?
Rakushun had told her that there was no kingdom without a death penalty. But decapitation was the usual method. A particularly severe sentence might entail planting the severed head on a pike. More cruel methods of execution were no longer carried out anywhere else, or so the very knowledgeable hanjuu had told her.
"You don't want to see this."
Somebody pulled on her coat. When she turned around, it was a small, middle-aged man with a tired look on his face. "This isn't the place for a girl like you. You should leave."
"Why are they doing this?"
The man shook his head. "The worse thing you can do in Wa Province is fail to pay your taxes, or run away from a labor gang. It was one or the other for most of them there."
"But . . . crucifixion . . . . "
"I know, it's news to most travelers. Nobody wants to spread bad news, that's why. So they leave Wa Province hearing no evil, seeing no evil. Come here and it's another story."
Shoukei's voice was drowned out by a scream, intermingled with the sound of a stone mallet striking a nail. Without thinking, she turned and saw the writhing form of a man, one hand pinned to a wooden post.
"Stop . . . . "
Again, the heavy sound. Shoukei reflexively recoiled and shut her eyes. It used to happen all the time in Hou. None other than her own father had mercilessly sent so many people to the gallows.
In an instant, the memory and fear of almost being drawn and quartered shot through her thoughts. The vengeful voices and vitriolic cries of the townspeople as they dragged her into the square in front of the Rishi. The bitterness in Gobo's face as she raised the cane to flog her.
Another scream. Moans arose from the crowds surrounding the square. The rising clamor thankfully extinguished the sound of the falling mallet. Unable to bear it further, Shoukei took a step back. Her heel struck a stone and she almost lost her balance.
A stone the size of her fist. Similar stones were strewn across the plaza, probably from the crumbling walls.
The screams echoed against the walls.
Gobo's son had been executed for throwing a stone like this. How could taxes or forced labor matter so much? Such crimes were hardly commensurate with the extremities of pain that could reduce a big man to such wailing.
Shoukei grabbed the stone at her feet. Why wasn't anybody stopping this? What kind of people were these? Before her mind could sort it out, her arm had acted. She threw the stone over the wall of people. It flew with no great force, striking one of the soldiers pushing back the crowds. The stone fell to the black earth and rolled several paces.
The crowd fell deathly silent.
"Who threw that!" bellowed a commanding voice.
Shoukei stepped back from where she had been standing.
"Whoever threw that stone, present yourself!
The eyes of the people next to her fell on her. The distress showed in their faces, as to whether or not to finger her as the assailant.
"Drag her out here!"
Responding to the command, the wall of people in front of her broke apart. As Shoukei stepped back again, somebody grabbed her wrist. Shoukei jerked her arm like a whip and broke free. She spun on her heels and clawed her way through the throngs. Once again, that same somebody grabbed her again, hard, yanking her half off her feet.
Shoukei fell to her knees. She raised her eyes. It was a girl her same age. A moment later her eyes fell upon the long overcoat the girl was wearing and she thought, No, a young man.
"This way. Quickly."
The girl spoke forcefully. There was no time to think. She dragged Shoukei along, forcing her way through the crowds. After too many steps to count, crawling most of the time, she was again pulled to her feet. Plowing people out of the way, they finally cut through and saw daylight.
"Where are you! Show yourself!"
Glancing briefly in the direction of the angry voices behind them, the two of them bolted from the square.
Escaping the wave of humanity, Shoukei let herself be dragged along as she ran. They barreled through the countless maze-like streets, arriving at the outskirts of the city near the ramparts. Through a fissure in the wall, they tumbled out of the city.
"I leapt before I looked," Shoukei gasped. The girl at last let go of her arm. Shoukei took a good look at her, vivid eyes set against her scarlet hair. She was definitely a she. Shoukei said, "Thank you."
Behind them in the city, the angry voices rang out.
"I understand the feeling," the girl said. "I tend to act before I think, too."
"It's like I couldn't stop myself."
Tagging along behind the girl, Shoukei peered back over her shoulder. Hard as it was for her to believe, she wondered if she'd caused any unnecessary grief to the people around her. She wondered how the prisoners had fared. The girl looked at her, as if reading her mind. "I'm okay," Shoukei said in strangely confident voice and nodding for no particular reason.
At the same time, some distance off to the side, came a shrill shout. "There she is!"
Ten or more soldiers turned the far corner of the ramparts. Shoukei froze. The girl planted herself in front of her. "Go," she said. "Get out of here."
"Don't worry about me," she said, flashing a bold smile. She put her right hand to her waist and deftly drew out a sword.
Shoukei goggled at her. She didn't have time to ask, Do you know how to use that? The girl pushed her on her way. She hesitated and again looked back at the girl, who again told her forcefully to go.
"You'll be okay?"
"Don't sweat it."
Shoukei nodded. She'd be out in the open, cutting across the open countryside. So instead she followed along the weaving, undulating ramparts and soon disappeared from sight.
As she turned the last corner, she looked back and saw the red-haired girl, sword in hand, practically flying about the field. She was acting as a decoy. Shoukei spotted a soldier holding up his arm and pointing towards the girl. Most of soldiers went charging into the field.
Thank you, she said in her heart, and started running in earnest, looking for a place to crawl under. The wall here was too high to climb over. Maybe there was a hole in the wall somewhere.
She turned another corner when a voice above her said, "Hey!"
Thinking it was one of her pursuers, she ducked down. But then glancing up, she saw a man atop the parapets extending his hand down to her. Here the wall was low enough for him to reach her.
"Here, grab my hand."
Shoukei hesitated for a second, glanced behind her. She could hear the sound of footsteps approaching the corner of the wall she had just come around.
Shoukei grabbed the hand. The man was twenty-five or six. His strength belied his small size. He pulled Shoukei to the top of the wall with remarkable speed.
Three soldiers appeared from the corner of the ramparts. "Halt!" they called out.
She swallowed the pain from her practically dislocated shoulder, kicked her toes against the stone wall and crawled up to the wall walk. A soldier's hand reached for her foot and missed, clawing at her ankle. Her rescuer's hand still holding hers, she collapsed on the walkway.
She fell to her hands and knees, gasping for breath. Behind her, a soldier climbed onto the wall walk. The man almost casually delivered a kick that sent the soldier sprawling. The soldier roared with anger. The next soldier appeared, holding a spear over his head.
The man grabbed the business end of the spear as it was thrust toward him. A tug of war ensued, ending several second later with the soldier losing the battle and just as quickly finding the grip of the spear planted in his throat.
"Jump!" was the man's next command, as he whirled the spear like a knife through the air and positioned himself. The expression on his face was distant and dispassionate.
Shoukei nodded. It was a good twenty feet from the edge of the parapets to the road below. Sandwiched between the walls was an alleyway strewn with garbage. Hearing the yells and screams of the soldiers, Shoukei jumped, or rather, slid herself off the edge and down the wall. The shock of impact shot up through her legs. She collapsed on the ground.
She sat up, breathing hard. Above her, the man had seized a soldier by the collar and flung him off the far side of the wall. He threw the spear in the opposite direction, spun around and jumped down next to her.
Shoukei nodded despite herself. He grinned somewhat mischievously and peered up at the wall. "The other girl made a clean getaway. She a friend of yours?"
Shoukei shook her head. Her ragged breaths tore at her throat. She couldn't speak. The alleyway was empty, but at least she heard no one else approaching.
"Can you move?" the man asked.
Shoukei again shook her head. In a past few minutes, she had used up a day's worth of energy. She didn't think she could move another inch.
"That so?" he said with a generous smile. He turned around and crouched down. "Climb on." Shoukei sat there, confused. "C'mon," he said, "hurry it up."
Shoukei obediently clung to his back and the man stood up without faltering in the slightest. "For the time being, pretend you're asleep. I'll take you somewhere where we can rest."