14-3 To Rangyoku, it was a day like any other, save the fact that Youshi had been gone now for ten days.
"When's Youshi coming back?" Keikei asked in a bored voice.
Rangyoku smiled. Keikei was lonely. Since the other children at the orphanage had died, he really did have a lot of time on his hands.
"Is Youshi gonna get married?"
"You mean, move in with that guy she went to see? Who knows."
Youshi couldn't get married until she had legally come of age, but common law marriage was not prohibited. If she had parents, they would have to approve, but Youshi didn't have any parents.
"Even supposing she did, she couldn't move away until she turned twenty."
As she explained this, Rangyoku found herself strangely doubting that what Keikei had proposed was true. Though Youshi was supposedly an orphan, Enho treated her more like a guest. And being a guest, she would be leaving before long.
Rangyoku had Keikei help her clean the dishes and wipe off the shelves. After straightening up the kitchen, she glanced over her shoulder at Keikei and said, "Good work. It's about time for tea. Why don't you call Enho?"
"Okay," Keikei said with a big bow, and ran off toward the study.
Rangyoku watched as he scampered into the main hall, smiling. She was proud of her little brother. He was smart and kind, a hard worker. Everybody who met him said so. Even Enho said that after elementary school, he'd recommend Keikei to the prefectural academy.
Pleased with herself, Rangyoku laughed as she arranged the utensils. She heard the door to the main wing opening.
"Enho, would you like some tea?"
No one answered. Rangyoku looked up and glanced toward the doorway. She froze. Several men stood there, men she had never seen before.
There were six of them. At a glance, they seemed like ordinary men, but there was an air of danger about them. Unconsciously, Rangyoku took a step back.
One of the men shut the door and stood in front of it, blocking the way.
"Who are you? What are you doing--?"
Her inquiry cut off mid-sentence. A man produced a dagger from inside his jacket. Rangyoku screamed and spun around. Heavy footsteps pounded after her. Her arms were pinned from behind.
"What are you--"
A hand covered her mouth. The man holding her nodded to the others. The men positioned themselves next to the door.
What is going on? Who are these men?
The light footsteps padded down the hallway. It was Keikei. Rangyoku's eyes opened wide. The door started to open. In the same instant, she twisted free with all her might and screamed, "Keikei! Run!"
Her feet were scooped out from under her and she crashed to the floor. She lifted her head and looked at the doorway. Her small sibling stood there petrified.
"Run! Keikei, Run!"
With startled eyes, Keikei turned to run, but the men closed on him faster. One effortlessly dragged Keikei toward him and struck him with his fist. No, not a fist, he was holding a knife in his hand.
"What's this!" came Enho's voice, and the sound of his feet.
At the same time, her eyes fell on Keikei body, like he had just decided to sit down. Right above his belt, the handle of the knife.
Something struck her hard in the back. Rangyoku screamed and curled into a ball. At the same time came a shooting pain and she screamed again.
She raised her head and saw Keikei kneeling there, his head almost touching the floor, and Enho running up behind him.
Before Enho reached Keikei, the men rushed at him and grabbed his arms. Enho shook himself free, knelt and picked up Keikei's body. With remarkable strength, he clasped Keikei against his chest, cast her a glance that spoke volumes, and headed toward the courtyard.
"Enho . . . run . . . . "
A man blocked his way. With Keikei still in his arms, Enho turned and ran in the direction of the study, the men in pursuit.
Why? Why is this happening?
Rangyoku planted her hands and got to her feet. Swaying, she turned toward the doorway.
She heard the sounds of running, the pounding of footsteps from deep within the rike. She dug her fingernails into the walls and staggered down the corridor, gripping the handrail. Should she rush outside to get help? She hesitated, then continued on down the hallway, clinging to the railing.
She ran with a lurching jog, ignoring the burning pain in her back. She came to the walk between the guest room and the study and found Keikei and Enho lying there on the floor.
"Rangyoku, get away from here!"
"But!" She looked down at her brother crumpled on the floor. The small pool of blood was growing. Keikei didn't move, not for her cries, not for her tears.
This can't be happening.
She came back to her senses. The men rushed at them, weapons in hand. Instinctively, she turned and ran sluggishly down the corridor. A blade struck her in the back, the impact driving her to her knees. She rolled to the floor, picked herself up, ran on. The weapons slashed at her feet, slammed against the back of her neck. She stumbled into the closest doorway.
It was the guest room. Her eyes fell on the door to the bedroom. She reached out and crawled toward it.
As Rangyoku opened the door and plunged inside, she felt another sharp shock of pain in her back. Ah, she sighed. Something warm flowed down from the back of her neck and across her chest. She grabbed hold of a shelf and collapsed, unable to support herself. A small box tumbled off the shelf and fell open next to her.
It's Youshi's, she thought listlessly. What a strange girl. Now there'll be nobody at the rike at all. Enho will be lonely.
She'd left him behind. What would become of him now?
What did we ever do to them?
The sight of her brother lying in a pool of blood pained her far more than her own blood gathering around her. He was still so small. Such a good kid. The only person left in her family. When their parents had died, they had joined hands and gone on living together.
What a sad kingdom this was. Being born in Kei was such a pitiful fate. Kei had killed their parents, had tried to banish her, and in the end even pursued them to this orphanage, where at last they had made a peaceful life for themselves. Kei was in such chaos that hoodlums and thieves had a free rein.
Youshi, Rangyoku thought, unconsciously tightening her grip on the small square of cloth in the palm of her hand. Strike down Keikei's killers. Show them no mercy.
There was a hard object in the cloth. Dazed, she stared at her hand and saw gold glimmering between her fingers.
A golden seal with an engraved face.
What's it doing here?
Heavy footsteps approached. Rangyoku tightened her grip around it, to hide it from the assassins. A second, a third sharp pain pierced her back.
The Imperial Seal of the Royal Kei.
Tears welled up in her eyes.
Help us, Youshi. Please. The way you saved us from the Kyuuki.
Save us, and save the people of Kei.