14-2 Suzu helped out doing odd jobs around the inn. On occasion, she transported goods on her sansui and delivered messages back and forth.
The sansui already disliked being ridden by anybody else but her. Koshou tried mounting up once, but got bucked off and very nearly walloped by a pair of hind legs capable of vaulting the walls of the city. Breaking a you-beast demanded the guts to go toe-to-toe (or hoof) with one, and fully training a pegasus required at least a decade. Its pride must be marshalled first. And only that tamed part of a pegasus would demonstrate a significant diminution of its assertiveness.
"When you get a bit better at mastering this beast . . . " said Koshou, gazing wistfully at the sansui.
"Me?" Gathering greens from the garden, Suzu stopped and looked over her shoulder at Koshou, who was sitting at the side of the well.
"A pegasus that's been really well trained will follow the orders its master gives it. The sooner you can become that kind of master, the sooner it will do what you tell it. Like, 'Let Koshou ride you.'"
"Well, I'll keep at it and see. It takes time."
"Sure does. When you've got a pegasus, riding a horse pales in comparison."
"Would you like a pegasus, too, Koshou?"
"Not that I could ever afford one. Talk is cheaper. Even if I became a soldier."
"Don't soldiers get pegasi?"
"Only if you rise really high in the ranks. And that depends on luck, but more on having the kind of connections that I don't have."
"To get promoted, you need a good sword arm, sure, but you have to go to secondary school, too. The commanders of the Imperial Army all graduated from college, don't you know. On top of that, you've got to get commendations. Right now, the only way to get commendations is working for people like Shoukou and beating the crap out of farmers. That's not the kind of soldiering I care to do."
"But it'd be nice if I could follow through on something like that."
Koshou tore his eyes away from the sansui and laughed bitterly. "When you're a soldier, you don't need to go to school, and it doesn't matter where you came from. If I could become a soldier somewhere, I could send Sekki away from Wa Province. He's got a good head on his shoulders, so I want to do what I can to make sure he succeeds in life. I want to take him away from here, but until he turns twenty, I got to find work somewhere. Even if I'm looking for a wife, he's coming along, too."
Koshou and Sekki didn't have parents. They'd been in the care of the orphanage until Koshou turned twenty. When he got his independence, Koshou took custody of Sekki. Unfortunately, Koshou had been born in Takuhou, and there was a surplus of land in Takuhou. Not because the amount of land was growing but because the population was shrinking due to the constant turmoil. Many farmers abandoned the land. The unluckier ones stayed and died.
Sekki was registered on the Takuhou census as well, so it was pretty much assured that when he turned twenty, he would get a partition in Takuhou. Even if he wanted to sell out and buy a shop in the city, land elsewhere was more valuable. Those landowners would have the upper hand when it came to making advantageous deals for themselves.
"If he hung in there and attended a local secondary school, it'd have to be a school in Wa. If Sekki demonstrated promise, he could go to university or at least the provincial academy and become a civil servant. But he'd still be stuck in Wa. Even if I found myself a wife and transferred my partition, Sekki couldn't come with me. That's how things stand now. To do right by Sekki, I'd have to become a soldier in another province, and Sekki would have to find a wife there as well . . . . "
With that, Koshou clapped his hands. "Well, Suzu, how are things going?"
"Oh, stop it." Suzu playfully hit Koshou with the basket she was gathering the greens with. "That kind of thinking isn't like you at all. Wouldn't it be better to make Wa Province a nice place to live by the time Sekki turns twenty?"
Koshou grinned. "That's for sure."
Sekki piped up, "Rather than what worries others, what about what worries me?"
At the sound of his voice, Suzu and Koshou started and turned to the main wing of the inn.
"For example, even if we went to another province, I wouldn't stop worrying about my big brother. Being short tempered and liable to fly off at the handle and all."
Sekki ignored the glare Koshou directed at him and smiled at Suzu. "It's just about lunchtime."
Most of the guests staying at the inn had some reason for being there, so the lion's share of the income was earned at mealtimes. The old man who stood guard in the kitchen was not without talent, and kept the tavern neat and trim. As a consequence, it had gained some small fame in this forlorn corner of the city. The clientele, though, was anything but "high class."
Because alcohol was served, bar fights were the norm. If Koshou wasn't there, things tended to get out of control. "Business has really picked up, thanks to you, Suzu," Sekki laughed as they prepared the noonday meal.
"Don't be silly."
"A girl is a strange sight around here. Many have returned, but women are still scarce in Kei. It's because the last empress had them all expelled."
"And because they were glad to get away from a dump like this, they're not eager to return. Those who know a craft or have some sort of ability aren't coming back. It's going to take some time."
After lunch, the only hangers-on were the same men who always hung out in the tavern. There definitely was not a woman in sight. Not a one. It was very odd.
And then she came into the tavern.
Suzu was wiping down the tables and stopped what she was doing. The girl wore a shabby-looking overcoat that made her look like a boy. But having met her before, Suzu knew at once she was a girl.
"It's you . . . . "
And that unforgettable crimson hair.
The girl's gaze fell upon her and her eyes widened. "You must be Suzu."
"Yes," Suzu nodded. "Thank you, for before."
The girl had tended to Seishuu when he was run over and killed. Since then, Suzu hadn't had the chance to express her gratitude.
"No need to thank me," the girl said, shaking her head.
Suzu pulled out a chair for her. "Please, have a seat. Do you want something to eat? I'll bring some tea."
Suzu hurried into the kitchen. When she rushed in, Sekki came to his feet. "Suzu, do you know her?"
"I don't really know her. We met once before."
"Oh," said Sekki, a dark expression briefly clouding his face.
"What's going on?"
"Nothing. Go on and serve her. Until the regular crowd comes in, I'll straighten up here."
"Well, don't let me stop you," Suzu laughed. She filled a teacup and hastened back to the dining hall.
The girl was also examining the tavern with a similarly grim expression.
"Here you go." She placed the teacup down on the table.
The girl bowed slightly. "It's only you, today, Suzu? The last time I came here, a tall man and a boy of fifteen or so were here."
"You mean, Koshou and Sekki? Koshou is out on an errand. Sekki's in the kitchen. Did you come to see them?"
"No, not necessarily."
"My name is Suzu Ooki."
"Suzu Ooki," the girl repeated. Her name seemed to surprise her.
"Thank you for helping out on that day. I don't like to admit it, but I'm grateful for what you told me about Seishuu."
"Seishuu? He's buried in a cemetery outside Takuhou. He was originally a child of Kei. When Kei fell into chaos, he fled to Kou. When the new empress was chosen, he decided to come back, but then was killed. He's buried in Takuhou, but cannot rest in peace."
"I see," the girl said, with a bitter countenance.
"I met Seishuu in Sou. We sailed to Kei together. There were a lot of people from Kei on the boat. They all expected that things were going to get better, now that there was a new empress. But so far, things have been disappointing. Having a new empress doesn't change anything. The marquis and the governor haven't changed." Suzu asked, "And you are?"
"Youshi," she replied. "I live in Kokei."
"Kokei. Ah, in Hokui. Next door in Ei Province. Is Ei a nice place?"
"More or less," she mumbled.
"I wonder if Kei is pretty much the same everywhere. But it's got to be better than Takuhou."
Youshi didn't answer.
"Life can be tough no matter where you live. But I do think some kingdoms are better off than others. I know there are places like that. I came from Sai. The Empress of Sai is a good person. Kingdoms not blessed with good rulers are pretty pitiful."
"Yeah," Youshi nodded.
"I have to wonder what the Royal Kei is doing, you know? Maybe she doesn't even understand the state her kingdom is in."
"She's a puppet," Youshi abruptly blurted out.
Suzu leaned forward. "Eh?"
"She's not terribly competent. Since she isn't trusted by the ministers, there's not much she can do. And not much she can get them to do. So her best recourse is to shut up and do as she's told."
"Really? You seem to know a lot about Gyouten, Youshi."
Youshi shook her head. "Just rumors."
"Rumors, huh. Just like the previous empress, those in government are left to their own devices, and she remains deaf to the cries of the people. That's why she banished the Marquis of Baku."
"What?" Youshi said.
Suzu furrowed her brows. "Even though the Marquis of Baku is a really good person, the Royal Kei still forced him out of office. He was loved by the people of Baku. But at the same time, she gives the Marquis of Wa a pass. It really is astonishing."
"Yes it is." Youshi stood up. "Sorry, but I won't be staying for dinner."
"Oh. Was it something I said?"
"No. I was passing by, and decided to drop in and see how things were going. I wasn't that hungry to start with."
"Will you come again?"
Youshi smiled thinly and nodded.
After Suzu saw her off, she tilted her head to one side and put down her cup. She noticed that Youshi hadn't even touched her tea. She said to herself, "I wonder if she got fed up with all the chit-chat."
There really weren't that many women in Kei. It was even rarer for her to meet a girl her same age. She had the feeling she carried on a bit more than usual.
Puzzling over this, she went to the kitchen and found Sekki and Koshou loitering in the doorway.
"Oh, you're back."
"Suzu, who was that girl?" Koshou asked, a grave expression on his face.
Suzu answered with a shake of her head. "Somebody I met before. She said she lives in Hokui."
Sekki looked up at Koshou and said, "Rou's house, remember?"
Koshou nodded. Again with a fierce look, he grasped her arm. "What did you talk about?"
"Nothing in particular."
They hadn't talked about anything unusual, that was for sure. Her complaints were no more severe than what people in Takuhou said instead of the usual hellos and goodbyes.
"She didn't have anything to say?"
"Not especially. Ah, she did talk about the Empress in Gyouten."
"Did she strike you as well informed about Gyouten?"
"I don't know, but . . . she said it was all rumors, though she seemed pretty knowledgeable of the place."
Koshou glanced at Sekki. Sekki nodded. "We'd better move, then."
"Eh?" said Suzu, turning to Sekki.
"She was here before. It was like she was looking for something. If she has a detailed knowledge of Gyouten, then she probably is from Gyouten."
"And that means . . . ?"
"There are rumors intimating that Shoukou and Gahou have a free rein because they've got the Royal Kei watching their backs. If somebody was sent from Gyouten to check out the situation here, then those rumors may be true."
Sekki nodded at the surprised Suzu. "Get your things together. Better safe than sorry. We'll leave here and move in with some friends of ours."
"But . . . . "
"That girl was no ordinary person."