14-4 "You may leave."
Keiki spoke softly to his shirei. The two youma wordlessly vanished. Kokei and Hokui were visible not too far off in the distance. As usual, they had alighted in a forest a safe remove from the highway.
Keiki's lord stood next to him, sullen and silent. What kind of person is the Marquis of Baku? she had asked.
Something happened in Takuhou. He did not know what she'd heard there, but when she came to where he was waiting outside the city, that was the question she'd posed to him. Keiki hadn't entered the city. The smell of death was too overwhelming.
Youko had returned in something of a rage. He hadn't inquired of the shirei who'd accompanied her as to the specifics of the situation. He had no idea why Her Highness asked such a question with such vehemence, and she wouldn't reveal her real intentions.
"Your Highness has been fully informed, has she not?"
"I haven't. That's why I asked."
"You dismissed Koukan knowing nothing of his temperament?"
Youko had no ready answer.
"I recommended to Your Highness that she act only after making a thorough investigation, that she not rely solely on the word of her ministers. And yet, at this juncture, you pose such a question to me?"
"And investigations were done. Koukan refused to cooperate with the pretender because he had designs on the throne. He envied me and tried to assassinate me. The plot was revealed and he fled."
"Yes, that is how things stand."
"But now I hear that Koukan is beloved by the people of Baku."
"And I have heard such things as well."
"Then why wasn't I told!"
"I shall look into the matter. However, had I deigned to defend Koukan, would Your Highness have listened to me?"
Youko again was at a loss for words.
"In terms of protecting Koukan, I asked on many occasions that Your Highness reconsider his dismissal. Did you not value the words of the ministers over my advice? I said I did not think Koukan was the man being so described. Why ask me at this late date, having already dismissed him?"
"What do you think of him?"
"He struck me as a capable man, though I have only met him twice. That was the impression he left upon me."
"Shall I take that to mean you have amended your opinion of him? Among others, you have the words of the ministers, the testimony of the witnesses, and my own advice. Did you not consider all points of view?"
"Enough already," she spat.
Traveling from Takuhou to Kokei, she didn't say another word. And now she stared sullenly at Kokei.
"Your Highness, the gates are closing."
"I know," she growled.
"Is Your Highness upset with me?"
She was standing with her back to him. "No." She shook her head. "I'm just pissed at myself."
Keiki sighed. His words were not sufficient. It was not that he was sparing with his words, but that they were never appropriate to the moment. Only afterwards would he realize their insufficiency.
"I do apologize."
"It's not your fault." She glanced back at him, a confused smile rising to her face. "Sorry for losing my temper. You know me, flying off at the handle at all."
"I should have said more."
"Naw. I wouldn't have listened. Sorry about all that. Let's go."
The expression on his lord's face urged him on, and briefly Keiki found himself smiling. The resolute heart of a forgiving lord gave him much cause to rejoice. But at the same time, his thoughts were tinged with longing and regret.
No, said that youthful and dearly-missed voice. I won't jump to conclusions. Better to ask you directly. Keiki stared at the darkening indigo heavens. That kingdom over yonder skies.
Youko thought as they walked back to Kokei, I am so incomplete in so many ways. And not trusting Keiki was first on the list.
"You heading back?" she asked as they passed through the gate.
Keiki looked up at the sky. "I believe there is enough time to say hello to Enho. I will return afterwards."
"That's the kind of guy Enho is, huh?"
"Indeed he is." A worried look flashed across his face. "He was originally from Baku. A man well versed in the Way, in logic and in reason. To tell the truth, I received a request from the Marquis. There were those who envied Enho's popularity and the great regard in which he was held, and wished him harm. Consequently, I received a communique from the Marquis requesting that he be transferred to Ei Province."
"From Koukan. I see."
And fearing that Youko nursed a grudge against him, Keiki had not revealed this to her. Considering all this, she laughed in self-derision. I really do have some ways to go.
Turning these thoughts on her mind, she turned the corner adjacent the rike and continued on several paces when Keiki suddenly stopped in his tracks.
"What is it?"
"I smell . . . blood," he said, his forehead deeply furrowing.
Youko examined their surroundings. It was a town in winter and the streets were deserted.
"You're kidding." She felt a thump in her heart and took off running. She ran through the gate into the rike, sprinted into the main hall and froze.
Drops of blood dotted the floor.
The living room was empty. She felt no other presence in the rike.
The trail of blood continued on down the hallway.
She ran toward the back of the rike. At her feet, a youma appeared, saying, "The enemy is not here." She acknowledged the voice and kept running. Turning a corner, she found Keikei, collapsed in the corridor.
Youko raced up to him and fell to her knees. A knife was buried deeply in the small body. When she touched him, there seemed to be no energy left in his body at all.
"Do not try to move him." Youko looked back at Keiki's grimacing face. "There is still breath in him. Hyouki, take the child to Kinpa Palace."
"We won't make it in time," the low voice said.
But Keiki nodded and said anyway, "If the occasion requires it, I shall carry him and go on ahead."
"By your command," came the gruff answer.
The red panther materialized beneath Keikei's body and hoisted the child onto its back. At the same time, a woman with white feathered arms appeared and bore him up.
Youko said, "Hyouki, Kaiko, please do this for me."
She looked around. The blood continued on into the guest quarters. Following the trail, she arrived at her own room. The floor was smeared with blood and gore. In the face of the horror, Keiki faltered and could not proceed.
"Keiki, don't push yourself. Get out of here."
"Look after Keikei for me. Get him to a doctor. There's not a moment to lose."
Heedlessly, Youko entered the living room. She noticed that the door to the bedroom was open and headed toward it. Inside was the body of a girl.
Youko ran up to her, put her hand on her shoulder, and immediately withdrew it. She covered her face with her hands. "Why?"
Rangyoku was dead.
Youko couldn't begin to imagine who could hate Keikei and Rangyoku enough to kill them. Rangyoku's back was covered with countless wounds. She could not begin to grasp a reason for such brutality.
"Why did this happen?" She tore at her hair and then suddenly lifted her head. "Enho?"
"He is not here," said Hankyo.
"Nowhere in the rike. I have searched every nook and cranny. Neither Enho nor his corpse."
"How do you know?"
"I smell three different bloods. He would seem to have been wounded. I conclude he was kidnaped."
Youko bit her lip. Several nights before, a number of men had surrounded the rike. Perhaps men who had come to see Enho, men with dark faces. Perhaps men from Takuhou. It wouldn't necessarily have changed anything if she had been able to connect the dots, but it grieved her that she hadn't been able to protect them.
"Rangyoku, I'm sorry," she said, stroking her back.
Youko straightened Rangyoku's tangled hair. Her hands were clasped together beneath her body. It struck Youko as such a piteous posture that she pulled her arms out from under her. Her right hand was tightly curled into a fist. From the shape of her fist, it was obvious she was holding onto something. Youko took hold of the still warm hand and gently pried open the fingers. The golden seal tumbled out.
Youko looked at the seal and at Rangyoku with wide eyes. In the end, had she grasped what it meant? She wouldn't have had time check the impression on the seal. Even if she had, with her wounds, and the fact that the impression was the mirror-image of the characters themselves, would have made reading it difficult, if not impossible.
As Youko pondered this, she also considered the significance of how Rangyoku had hidden it, beneath her body, trying to keep it from being discovered. And the only people she could be hiding it from could have been the killers. But why had she hidden it? Because it belonged to Youko, because it was made out of gold. Or both.
"Rangyoku . . . thank you." She didn't want to cry, but couldn't hold back the tears. "I am so sorry."
If she hadn't left the rike, she could have protected them.
"Hankyo, where is Keiki?"
"Returning to the palace."
Youko nodded. At the very least, Keikei alone must survive. If he did not, mere condolences would hardly be enough.
A child also died in Takuhou.
Biting her lip, Youko looked down at Rangyoku. She bowed her head to the floor. "This sorry excuse for an empress truly begs your forgiveness."