15-2 The house where Shoukei made herself useful was frequented by thirty or so people on a daily basis. At least fifty had stayed there at any one time. Moreover, they were also all clearly associates of Kantai.
Calling them mercenaries was no exaggeration. Many rode as bodyguards with the caravans arriving at and departing Meikaku. However, an equal number were holed up at the house, apparently waiting for something to happen. They didn't seem employed, but a significant number of them came and went quite frequently. Kantai didn't have a job. He was in charge of those at the house.
"Are you stuck here because you helped me?" Shoukei asked him one day.
Kantai shook his head. "No, I'm just a lazy bum."
With a lot of time on their hands, the boarders often jousted with swords and lances. Kantai didn't participate. For the most part, he only watched. But there was no doubt that the leader of the pack was Kantai. They paid him deference, and used polite language when addressing him. Shoukei was treated as his guest. Shoukei worked for her rent, but hardly anybody except Kantai asked her to do anything. Her impression was that a great variety of people had taken advantage of Kantai's offer of lodging, but what they really had in common was an animus toward Gahou, Province Lord of Wa.
A kind of self-made knight in shining armor.
They were a defiant and disciplined group of errant knights, united in opposition to Gahou. Shoukei got that much. From the way Kantai looked after them, she had a hunch there was more to it than that, though.
Where does the money come from?
He must have been raised in a wealthy household. Only that could account for the indifferent manner in which he spread the cash around. Perhaps, it occurred to Shoukei, all these mercenaries were in fact working for Kantai. Or perhaps Kantai himself . . . .
Pondering these things as she filled the cistern in the courtyard, the sound of horses' hooves came from the frontage of the building. Through the open main gate she saw a carriage drive up. A man stepped down from the carriage. A shroud covering his head and his face hidden from sight, he entered the gate. He took it upon himself to shut the doors. He finally raised his head and she heard the sound of the carriage departing.
"Um--?" Shoukei said.
He lowered the shroud to his shoulders, revealing a man in his forties. There was a great aura of authority about him. "And you are?" he asked, in a deep voice.
Keeping her doubts to herself, Shoukei replied with a slight bow. "I do odd jobs around the place. And who might you be?"
"I came to see Kantai. Is he in?"
The man nodded, and without further ado, headed toward the main wing. He showed no signs of wishing Shoukei to get Kantai for him or show him the way. Shoukei hurried after him.
"Um, excuse me, but how should I address you?" Shoukei knew that this was a residence that anybody and everybody were free to enter when they wished. But even without anybody saying so, she also clearly got the sense that a person of unknown provenance could not simply wander in off the street. "Are you a friend of Kantai's?"
Shoukei placed herself in his path, blocking his way. The man smiled. "I see. He finally found himself a capable handmaid. My name is Saibou. Please announce my presence to Kantai."
I'm not a handmaid, Shoukei said to herself, running up the stairs. She was almost to the living area when Kantai came out. "Kantai--" she said.
"Right," said Kantai, with a nod of his head. No doubt he'd heard her voice from the courtyard. He bowed his head low. Saibou nodded in a mindful manner, climbed the stairs, and entered the parlor.
"Kantai, that man is--"
"Yes, of course. I'll introduce you. Hold your horses."
She trailed after him. Perhaps, it now occurred to her, Kantai had been hired by somebody, and that somebody was this Saibou.
The parlor was right off the main hall. Hanging on the back wall were two banners decorated with Chinese characters. Between them was a decorative scroll. Below the scroll was a shelf, and in front of the shelf were a desk and two chairs. This was the study of the master of the house, but Saibou sat down as if he owned the place, and greeted Shoukei and Kantai.
"You hired yourself an interesting girl, there."
Kantai smiled. "I didn't exactly hire her," he said, and briefly explained how she had come to join them.
"I see," said Saibou with a small smile. "A girl with pluck. But I take it she was less than familiar with the risks of throwing a stone at a government official in Wa Province."
"Not necessarily. She's a refugee from Hou."
Saibou leaned forward and looked at her. "From Hou. Where were you born?"
Shoukei hesitated a moment, deciding whether to be honest and say Hoso, the capital of Hou, or Shindou in Kei Province. "Hoso," she said.
"Shoukei of Hoso. Huh." He didn't pursue the matter further. "So, Shoukei, do you understand what kind of people are gathered here?"
"I have a pretty good idea."
Saibou nodded. "Wa Province is a reflection of the temperament of Marquis Gahou. He oppresses the people, disregarding the honor of the Empress and the will of the kingdom. Corrupt retainers who would shake the roots of Kei cannot be left to their own devices."
"By all rights, the Empress should direct the affairs of the kingdom, but our new monarch has not been on the throne long, and the Royal Court is in the back pocket of officials who took advantage even before the Late Empress Yo-ou. Having been enthroned for barely half a year, it is doubtful that the current Empress has the means to resist them. Taking control of the court and extending the rule of law to the Nine Provinces by itself would be next to impossible. On top of that, the Empress is a taika, and knows little of Kei."
"If we investigate Gahou here, and raise a stink about the chaos in Wa Province and about Gahou's misrule, the Empress is bound to pay more attention to the suffering in all the Nine Provinces. And when she deigns to start paying attention, we shall petition her with all of the resources at our command."
"For the good of Wa Province, more than toppling Gahou, more than anything else, the Empress must be made aware of conditions here in Wa. Not overthrowing Gahou would be acceptable if the Empress were able to judge the situation correctly. Otherwise, we will no doubt be named enemies of Gahou and the crown, and will be destroyed. In light of all this, will you still stand by Kakutai, Shoukei?" Saibou addressed Kantai as "Kakutai."
Shoukei tightened her hand into a fist. "Yes. I truly believe the Royal Kei will recognize our cause." She had to believe, because of the way Rakushun cared so much about her. Even having attained the throne in her unfinished state, an Empress who worried so much about whether or not she was fit for the role should be nobody's fool.
Saibou smiled. "I see. Our guest from Hou believes in the Empress. There's something ironic about that."
"And you don't believe in her?"
"Because there are those who believe, I would like to as well."
Saibou didn't respond, but rapped lightly on the desk. "In any case, we welcome you, Shoukei. I am pleased to make your acquaintance."
"And I yours."
Next to her, Kantai tilted his head quizzically. "You didn't come all the way here to see Shoukei, did you?"
"Of course not," Saibou smiled. "Yes, I did have something I needed to do. I came to tell you, Kakutai."
"What is it?"
"A man by the name of Enho, the superintendent in Hokui, Ei Province--more specifically, the town of Kokei--has disappeared."
"By disappeared, you mean--"
"Yesterday, the rike in Kokei was attacked and a girl was murdered. Her younger brother and the superintendent were apparently kidnaped. Nothing was stolen from the rike. I have no idea why it was attacked. Men had been observed hanging around the rike. The word is, they were from Takuhou."
"Yesterday in Takuhou, the gates opened after sunset to admit a single carriage."
"Yes, of course."
Shoukei looked up at Kantai. "Meaning?"
"There is another beast in Takuhou, a man by the name of Shoukou. The gates could only have been opened after they were closed on the orders of somebody very high up. In the case of Takuhou, the first name that springs to mind is Shoukou. Turn over that rock, and you will definitely find Gahou there."
"So Gahou commanded Shoukou to kidnap the superintendent?" asked Shoukei.
Saibou smiled thinly. "Let's not rush to conclusions. That's what I'd like you to investigate."
"And one other thing. A package will arrive here tomorrow. I'd like you to deliver it to Rou in Hokui."
Kantai replied with a ironic smile. "Rou moved to Houkaku. Seems there was someone sniffing around his place."
Saibou furrowed his brow. "Rou moved?"
"I'm sure he'll fill me in when we deliver the goods."
Saibou nodded. "It's a shipment of winter weapons, twenty pieces. I shall leave their disposition to your good offices."
Kantai bowed low. "By your command."