15-3 Koshou and company moved to a brothel in the southwest corner of Takuhou. It was a brothel only in name. With so few women about, there weren't many left to do the entertaining. The remaining working girls had moved to higher class establishments in the eastern part of the city. The only ones who remained were two women well past their primes. Like the madam, they were friends of Koshou.
The character of a city depended a great deal on where you were. In most cases, the urban centers bordered the government offices to the south, with commercial markets located along the loop road. For both markets and residential areas, the low rent districts were found in the west, and trended richer toward the east.
"In fact, urban neighborhoods are supposed to be located in the northern section," Sekki instructed Suzu. The two of them were cleaning up around the forlorn brothel.
"Don't know. It seems to have been that way in older cities. That's what it says in really old books: the government compound is located in the center, and the commoners' residences are built to the north. In such a city, the west would enjoy a higher social status than the east. But most cities are the exact opposite."
Suzu said, "In all the cities I've been to, the most crowded areas are in the south, family estates in the center, and mausoleums and temples in the north."
"That's how it is, isn't it? You very often find that things are the opposite in cities that have been around for a long time, that haven't met with disaster. At some point, it all got turned upside down. It really is quite odd."
"Are you interested in things like that, Sekki?"
"Yeah," Sekki nodded, as he washed the cooking utensils.
"It's too bad you had to quit school."
"Yeah. But I don't think this is the time to indulge such thoughts. It would have been nice to be born in an era when a worthy empress resided in the capital and the kingdom was at peace, but that's just the way things are."
"It would have been nice to have been born in En or Sou."
Sekki smiled bitterly. "Unfortunately, imagining doesn't make it so. I was born in Kei. At the end of the day, you're born where you're born, and you can only change so much after that."
"You really do have a good head on your shoulders, Sekki. I understand why Koshou is so disappointed in the way things have turned out."
"I do worry about my big brother. It's in his nature to get more upset about what happens to others than to himself. He's always making other people's fights his own. But taking on something this big is amazing."
Suzu stopped what she was doing for a moment and blinked. "You don't agree with what he's doing?"
"That's not what I mean. But as much as the people of this town make my brother mad, he doesn't get mad at Shoukou. In other words, if he got really worried and started thinking seriously about how to dispose of Shoukou, he'd conclude it'd be better to go on living and putting up with whatever came his way."
"I get that." Suzu gazed at her hands. Getting injured always hurt. After a while, you reflexively became afraid of the pain. So you soldiered on in order to escape the pain. But at the same time, the soldiering on began to feel like an accomplishment, when nothing was actually changing.
Sekki sighed. "But what if my brother attacks Shoukou and fails? Shoukou will become enraged, and life will only get worse for the people of Shisui. The people of Shisui, in turn, will hate my brother."
"That's probably true."
"That's why it's just too risky to leave him to his own devices. But I really don't know if I'm being a help or a hindrance."
Sekki grinned mischievously. Suzu smiled as well. At that point, the aforementioned Koshou appeared. Suzu and Sekki exchanged glances and burst out laughing.
"What's going on?"
"Oh, nothing. What's up?"
Kousho beckoned to Suzu from the kitchen door. "Sorry, but I have a job for your sansui."
"You need to transport something?" Kousho often had Suzu carry goods to villages in the surrounding areas.
"Yes, but this time it's a bit further. A two-day journey to the east by horse cart, there's a city called Houkaku. Here's a map. Go to Rou's place. He should have the items we've requested."
Hansei Rou and Kousho were old friends.
"I'm sure Rou will do a good job packing them, but even if stopped by sentries, we cannot permit this shipment to be opened. If they were, they're bound to be stolen."
"These are items you don't want anybody to see?"
Kousho nodded. "Winter weapons."
Suzu stiffened at the mention of the term.
"They're pretty heavy, but not that bulky. Once they arrive, at the very least, we need to get these winter weapons into the skilled hands of a minimum number of our group."
Suzu nodded. "That's fine. I'll be going, then."
The next morning, Suzu left Takuhou and headed east on the main highway. On a sansui, the trip took half a day. Suzu arrived at Houkaku by noon. Houkaku was as big a city as Takuhou. Houkaku was the capital of Rouya prefecture, which was next to Shisui prefecture.
According to the map Kousho had drawn, Suzu looked for a house in the southwest part of the city. She found there a broken-down dump of a residence. The main gate facing the street was tightly shut. When she knocked on the gate, a fifty-something man with odd, mottled brown hair appeared.
"Who is it?"
Suzu bowed, greeting him as Koshou had instructed her. "I've come from Shikin, county of San, in Baku Province."
The man eyes suddenly fell upon her hands, focusing on her ring finger. "Come in."
Rou was cooperating in Koshou's cause, but he wasn't an intimate member of their group. The greeting was not used when seeing friends, but to establish Suzu's bono fides as a trustworthy ally.
Through the door was a narrow courtyard. At the back of the courtyard was an old house no wider than the yard, a small building no larger than a shack. Suzu led the sansui into the courtyard. The man closed the gate behind her and said, "I'm Hansei Rou. Koshou and I hail from the same home town."
"Yes. I came to pick up the shipment."
"Right," Rou nodded. He said with a grim expression, "That is the case, but the shipment in question hasn't arrived."
"Today, I was supposed to get two separate shipments, but neither has arrived. I'm sorry, but perhaps I could ask you to wait?"
"Okay," said Suzu. Koshou had told her to follow Rou's instructions after she got here.
"If the shipments arrive this evening, I'll have to ask you stay overnight. The place is a mess, but there is a room where you can sleep. I apologize for the inconvenience."
"It's fine. No problem."
"You might as well sit back and relax. I'll get water for that fine horse of yours. Would you like some tea?"
"Sure," Suzu said, with a nod.
Rou wasn't a handsome man, but proved to be a good talker. They sat down at a stone table and watched the sansui munching on the feed and conversed about this and that.
"So you're all the way from Sai? That must have been one long trip."
"I came most of the way by ship."
"What do you think of Kei? Must be pretty cold compared to Sai."
"I was with a troupe of traveling entertainers for a while, so I've been all over the place."
"How about that."
A knock came at the gate. "And now they show up!" Rou playfully scowled. He opened the doors. After exchanging a few words with the visitor in a low voice, a girl about Suzu's age appeared, leading a horse. Her hair was mottled like Rou's but a dark blue color. It struck Suzu as quite extraordinary.
"Well, at least twenty have arrived," Rou said with forced smile. He showed the girl to the table. "Why don't you take your time as well?"
"But--" the girl said, glancing up at him.
"Sorry," said Rou. "Without all thirty pieces, this girl isn't going to pay me. And without that money, I can't pay you."
Suzu raised her voice. "If that's the case, I can pay--"
Rou raised his hand, cutting her off. "No. My place, my rules, and that's not my line of business. I'm the broker, not a dealer."
Rou grinned and glanced over his shoulder at the girl. "That being the case, you'll have to wait for a while. Save your complaints for the tardy party. Would you like some tea, too?"
"Thank you," she nodded.
Suzu gave her a good, long look. From the bone structure of her face, she could tell she was a beautiful woman. They were about the same age. At Rou's urging, she sat down in one of the stone chairs and glanced at Suzu. Her gaze quickly moved onto the sansui.
"A sansui," she said.
Suzu leaned forward. "Are you familiar with sansui?"
"I've seen one or two before."
"Oh. I'm from Takuhou. I'm Suzu. And you are?"
"I came from Meikaku. My name is Shoukei."
"We seem about the same age. How old are you?"
Shoukei seemed to mull the question over momentarily. "Sixteen."
Suzu was about to say that she was, too, but hesitated. What was the best way to describe her age? She was swept into this world at the age of fourteen, twelve by the way birthdays were counted here. After that, she'd wandered hither and yon for four years, and then had become a wizard. That would make her sixteen, more or less.
"I'm the same age," Suzu said. Shoukei tilted her head to one side, but said nothing more. Suzu said, "Shoukei, are you a subject of Kei?"
"No. I'm from Hou."
"Hou? The northwest kingdom in the Kyokai?"
"Yes. One of the four Outland Kingdoms. How about yourself?"
"I'm from Sai. We've both come from far away kingdoms."
"Indeed," laughed Shoukei.
Suzu felt herself relaxing. "This is nice. It's not often that I've gotten to meet a girl my same age in Kei."
"That's true. So why have you traveled so far to get here?"
Suzu pondered the question. She'd set out on her journey for any numbers of reasons, and all of them were dead and gone. Her past desires had no relationship to who she was now. "Oh, this and that."
"This and that brought you all the way to Kei?"
"Well, first of all, I heard that the Empress of Kei was a girl my same age--"
Shoukei eyes blinked and opened a bit wider.
"--and that she was a kaikyaku like me."
"You're also from Yamato?"
"Yes, that's right. With no place to call my own, I thought I'd call the kingdom of a fellow kaikyaku my home. Does that make any sense?"
Shoukei looked at her, her face blank with surprise. Finally she laughed and said, "Me, too."
"Eh? You're a kaikyaku?"
"No. I also came to this kingdom to see the Royal Kei--"
Suzu gaped at her.
"--because she was an empress the same age as me."
"That's weird. So the two of us, from Sai and Hou, came here to see the Royal Kei, and just happened to meet."
"Sure seems like it."
"You're not kidding."
Suzu and Shoukei giggled. "Hey!" came Rou's voice behind them. "No carrying on personal conversations!"
Suzu looked back with surprise, Rou was standing there, teacups in hand, and a sour look on his face. "No private chitchat between people who meet here. My place, my rules."
"Oh . . . sorry."
"I'm a broker of things, not of people. People who use my services are people with a reason for being here. No shady types set one foot inside the gate. And whatever reasons the two of you have, best you not know too much about each other."
"Sure," said Suzu, with a shrug of her shoulders. She glanced at Shoukei and caught her looking the same way, and for a moment their eyes met.