15-4 The next shipment didn't arrive until just before the gates closed. As Suzu and Shoukei couldn't leave Houkaku, they had no choice but to stay the night at Rou's place. They ended up sleeping in a small room furnished with a divan and a bed without a canopy. Two people in a space meant for one.
"Which one do you want? The bed or the divan?"
"Then you take the bed. I'll sleep on the divan."
"You don't have to do that."
"I'm returning on the sansui. Meikaku is way to the east, isn't it? And you've got to go back by horse, right?"
"Meikaku is only a day's ride by horse."
"You should take the bed, then. It's only a half-day ride for me."
Shoukei thought about it for a minute, then nodded. "Thanks. To tell the truth, it'd be nice for a change. I've been sleeping on a couch for so long."
"Really? Well, great then."
The two girls grinned at each other.
"Suzu," Shoukei asked, "what do you do in Takuhou?" And then quickly added, "Maybe that's the kind of thing I'm not supposed to ask."
"Let's pretend we didn't hear anybody say that."
They both giggled, the private laughter filling the small room.
"Oh, I do odd jobs around the inn. How about you, Shoukei?"
"So how did you come across--" those weapons, Suzu started to ask, and thought better of the question. They were probably getting a bit over their heads with a subject like that.
But Shoukei leaned forward and answered. "It is out of the ordinary. Do you know what's in those crates?"
"More or less."
"Winter weapons. To be used how? And there are thirty of them. Not things you can easily lay your hands on."
"Did the people you got them from say what they would do with the weapons?"
"I was only asked to make the delivery."
A moment of silence followed, the two of them exchanging glances. Shoukei smiled first. "I haven't the slightest idea. It is unusual, amassing winter weapons like that. But somebody with money must be behind it."
"Yeah. I guess we've been told only what we need to know."
Shoukei tilted her head to the side and looked at Suzu. The girl from Takuhou was taking back a shipment of thirty winter weapons. The price of those thirty would be approximate to that of 300 ordinary weapons.
From Takuhou. "Then perhaps the target is Shoukou?"
Suzu waved her hands in denial. "No, it can't be."
"The man who sent me here is gathering mercenaries instead of winter weapons."
Suzu's eyes flew open. "Gahou."
"Undoubtedly. Are you thinking the same thing I am?"
"Sure seems like it."
The bedroom fell into silence. Suzu sat down on the divan and sighed. "The kid I was traveling with got killed by Shoukou."
"Why can a public servant like Shoukou get away with things like that? Shisui really is an awful place."
"I've heard rumors."
"Those rumors are only half as true as reality. Seishuu--the boy I made it all the way to Takuhou with--he didn't do anything wrong. He was killed for getting in the way of Shoukou's carriage. I was so angry. When I try to imagine people looking the other way when things like that happen, I get so mad I can't stand it. But Shoukou--"
"--has got Gahou watching his back."
Suzu blinked. "You know that for certain?"
"That's what everybody says: Gahou and Shoukou are two peas in a pod."
"No doubt they are. I'd sure like to see Shoukou and his ilk get what they deserve. With the Royal Kei looking out for Gahou, nobody's going to try and punish Shoukou. That's why we've got no choice but to take the initiative ourselves, right?"
"I don't agree."
"I don't think the Royal Kei is doing anything like protecting Gahou. Isn't that what the Late Empress Yo-ou did, you mean?"
"It was true of the Late Empress Yo-ou, and the current Empress, too--"
"The person who brought me here said that the Royal Kei simply doesn't know about things like that."
Shoukei looked intently at Suzu. "When I was in Ryuu, I met a friend of the Royal Kei."
"One of her closest companions. I can't believe she's that bad of a person. She wouldn't protect Shoukou or collude with Gahou."
"The Royal Kei has only recently acceded to the throne. There's got to be a lot she doesn't understand. I think that's what it comes down to."
"Ignorance is no defense. She's the Empress, after all."
Shoukei gave Suzu a long, hard look. Then she said, "My father was the king."
"He . . . what?"
"The Royal Hou. Three years ago his subjects rose up and overthrew him."
Suzu gaped at her.
"My father was detested by the people. The result of all that hate was regicide. They hate him even now, and there's nothing I could do to change that. But even with a father like that, watching him die hurt terribly. Probably as much as it hurt when Seishuu died."
"In order to prevent my father's death, before the hate grew so intense, I should have remonstrated with him. I loathe myself now for not doing so. What if all the people surrounding the Royal Kei are naive dunces like I was? She'll be hated as my parents were. There were people who even said that I condoned my father's sins." Shoukei lowered her gaze. "I don't know what's really happening. But if the Royal Kei is surrounded only by those kinds of people? My father was chosen by Hourin. He couldn't have been doomed from the start. But when the people around him tried to warn him and couldn't get through to him, he ended up parting from the Way."
Suzu examined the longing look on Shoukei's face, an expression that brought to mind another person she'd met recently: She's a puppet.
"You're right," Suzu said. Shoukei tilted her head quizzically. Suzu continued, "I met somebody else who said the same thing. Only rumors, but the word was that the Empress doesn't have the trust of her retainers and can't get them to do anything she wants. So her only recourse is to do what they tell her to do."
"You think that's really what's going on?"
"I've heard that most of the ministers at the Royal Court are from the era of the Late Empress Yo-ou. I think you can guess what kind of people they are. The same ones who stood by while Yo-ou fell from Way before their very eyes."
"But the Royal Kei dismissed the Province Lord of Baku. Wasn't he beloved by his people?"
"Standard practice for corrupt officials. Of course, beasts like Gahou and Shoukou would conspire against an accomplished and respected man like the Marquis. They'd cook up some crime to frame him with."
"There's a superintendent in Ei Province by the name of Enho. I've heard that he's highly knowledgeable of the Way. The rike where Enho was superintendent was attacked. The attackers killed a girl and kidnapped Enho. A gang was hanging around the rike, and rumor has it they were from Takuhou. I've also heard that the same day Enho was assaulted, even after the gates were closed, they were opened again."
"You're kidding." Very few people could order a city gate reopened after it was closed. "It must have been Shoukou."
"He's the only one who could pull off something like that, don't you think? Just like the people around the Royal Kei could engineer the downfall of the Marquis without breaking a sweat."
Shoukei looked into Suzu's eyes. Her big eyes suddenly brimmed over. Shoukei watched her silently.
"The Royal Kei . . . she's a good person?"
"I have to think so. The way you asked, do you not like her?"
Suzu shook her head. "It'd be such a relief is she were."
"I wanted to see her. I thought for certain she must be a good person. I met Seishuu on the ship from Sai. He was in a really bad state, and I was worried sick about him. I told him we'd go to Gyouten together . . . . "
Suzu spoke his name in such a grief-stricken voice it made her heart ache.
"But he was killed by Shoukou. Anybody who'd let a beast like that run free, who'd protect him, wouldn't have done anything for Seishuu if I had taken him to Gyouten. So what did I bring him to Takuhou for? Just to die?"
"Suzu--" Shoukei said, taking hold of her hand.
"He was such an unfortunate kid."
"Yes, he was."
"If we had gotten to Gyouten, the Royal Kei would have helped him."
Shoukei stroked the back of the sobbing Suzu. She wept like a child. It was enough to break her heart.
I only wish you could understand.
That was all she desired to say to the Empress in Gyouten. Shoukei didn't know whether or not the Royal Kei could have healed Seishuu. She wished--
I only wish you could understand how all the hopes of the people rest upon your shoulders.