houkei picked up the reins of the horse. "Are you going straight back to Takuhou?" she asked Suzu, who was holding the reins of her sansui.
"Yes," said Suzu.
"I hope we meet again."
Suzu answered with a nod.
Where do you live-- Shoukei almost asked, but swallowed her words. They'd talked about so much. She had the feeling they'd talked about things that would bring a scowl even to Kantai's face. Nonetheless, she and Suzu knew the limits of what they could say to each other.
"It was really nice being able to meet you," said Suzu, looking on the verge of tears.
Shoukei nodded firmly. "We'll definitely see each other again, after everything settles down."
With that, they averted their eyes and mounted up. "Later," they said to each other, and separated on the main highway to the east and to the west.
A day's ride brought Shoukei to Meikaku. She wrapped her shawl loosely around her head as she approached the gates. Though the search for the stone-throwing girl had been called off for the time being, she couldn't be too cautious. The guardsman gave her a once-over, but paid her no particular attention.
In Meikaku, or rather, in the cities of Hokkaku and Toukaku that had grown out of Meikaku, the criminal element was prevalent, and even if very few of them went around throwing stones at officials, the authorities couldn't go on chasing Shoukei forever.
The merchant caravans found themselves thrown into this cauldron of refugees and the teeming poor. It was hard to believe they didn't find it completely disorienting. With nothing to eat, and with no other recourses, starving people would attack wagons hauling grain shipments and were arrested by the police. That they weren't dragged off to the main square could be considered a salvation of sorts, but nobody knew where they were held.
According to the mercenaries, even when highwaymen were arrested, they could win release by greasing a few palms with their share of the loot.
The poor and downtrodden joined gangs that teamed up to attack the caravans, knowing that if they were arrested they wouldn't be punished. Even if their hard-won proceeds were confiscated, and they were lucky enough not to get arrested, at least the pressing hunger would be alleviated. And even when the caravans hired bodyguards, they surely couldn't protect every piece of cargo. Looting and plunder that began in poverty was bound to repeat itself over and over.
A training ground for thievery, that's what Kantai said. Every time he caught one of these self-made highwaymen, the stolen merchandise went to the Provincial Guard. It was never returned to its rightful owner. That was how Wa Province enriched itself.
Traders were aware of this, but had no choice but to go through Meikaku. Smaller merchants formed their own syndicates and hired mercenaries. They bribed provincial officials and demanded that the authorities enforce the law. But depending on what was being transported, there weren't any guarantee that their own bodyguards wouldn't turn on them. In fact, it was hardly uncommon.
Strongmen with the slightest confidence in their abilities gathered from the outlying districts to find work. The competition led to bloodshed over and over.
Shoukei sighed, dismounted from the horse, and walked through the gate.
"So you're finally back. You're late."
Kantai was addressing a number of men when she entered the main hall. When he saw her, he waved the men off. The men got up and left to a separate wing.
"One other shipment didn't arrive," said Shoukei, and forthrightly informed him about what had transpired. She handed Kantai the money she'd gotten from Suzu via Rou.
"That's unfortunate. Did Rou say anything more about his move to Houkaku?"
"There was a girl--" Shoukei knit her brows. Kantai had asked her to inquire into the subject, and she had been told something about it.
"Apparently there was a girl checking out Rou's place in Hokui."
"About the same time he was meeting with the people in Takuhou. A little while later, the same girl visited them in Takuhou. After that, Rou was warned that it'd be a good idea if they moved."
She related the account as she'd heard it. She leaned forward. "So, what kind of man is this Rou?"
"A good man with a good heart. In short, he's an associate of Saibou."
"And what about Saibou? He's the one who hired you?"
"Not the case here. He's somebody who helped me out in the past. Let's leave it at that."
"Saibou helped you out? Or one of his superiors?"
Kantai eyes opened a bit wider and he smiled thinly. He motioned for her to get a chair and sit down next to her. "What do you mean, 'or one of his superiors?'"
"That's the sense I got about him. It seemed to me that Saibou-sama was working for somebody, too."
That was the impression she'd gotten from a word here and there. Somebody had asked Saibou to deliver the message to Kantai. Saibou had no faith in the Empress, but the man who sent him did.
Kantai answered with another wry smile. "I see, a woman's intuition."
"Of course. And?"
"This is the case. Except that nobody's been hired by anybody. Saibou-sama owes the man a debt, and I owe them both. We all agreed that something must be done about Wa Province. To be sure, I get financing through Saibou-sama, but only because the war funds have been entrusted to him."
"Meaning that Saibou's superior is the person in charge? Enho, perhaps?"
Kantai smiled softly. "I don't know Enho, either. Beyond that, don't ask because I won't tell."
"Ah," said Shoukei, closing her mouth on the subject.
"There are men who live apart from society and teach the Way. Through their words, they attempt to keep the kingdom on the path of righteousness. I think Enho is one such person. I couldn't say for certain, though. There are those who try to keep the kingdom true through their actions. Those who arm themselves, as I do, resolved to support like-minded individuals through intermediaries like Rou. In this kingdom, there are many who lament what Kei has become. Not just us."
"Well . . . yes."
"The same way we have Gahou in our sights, in Takuhou there are people targeting Shoukou. Yes, I see. So there are some men with backbone still living in Takuhou."
"I met the girl from Takuhou. She took the winter weapons back with her."
Kantai furrowed his brows. "If they're amassing winter weapons, then they must be getting ready to strike."
"I think so," said Shoukei, dropping her voice. She had to wonder if Suzu was okay.
"Rou is one of Saibou's old acquaintances. No, better to call him an old classmate of our superior. They both attended the Evergreen Seminary in the western province of Baku."
"A seminary? Is that like an academy?"
A great deal of self-study was required in order to gain admittance to university. To supplement that self-study, students often asked learned men to tutor them, and learned men would in turn open private tutoring schools, or juku.
"The Evergreen Seminary was a kind of private academy that teaches not worldly knowledge, but the Way. Rou is a graduate of the Evergreen Seminary. Because it wasn't an academic juku, anybody could attend. Graduates of the seminary would not necessarily become public servants. But if the kingdom strays from the Way, these paladins will turn out in force."
"Saibou and our superior graduated from the Evergreen Seminary as well. That is probably how they got to know each other. In any case, Evergreen Seminary is known throughout Kei, with many calling it their alma mater. Though not anymore."
"Not anymore? The Evergreen Seminary?"
"It was struck by arsonists a year ago. The instructors were murdered and the lecture hall destroyed. The head of the gang was apparently a drifter, a refugee, but he was killed moments before being arrested. Somebody was pulling the strings behind the scenes and made sure he wouldn't talk. Nobody knows who, though."
"Because some people aren't happy about the teachings of the Way. When a kingdom begins to falter, the followers of the Way are the first ones to turn their critical gaze on the government."
"I see," said Shoukei, lowering her gaze.
"Evergreen Seminary was located in the city of Shishou, San county, in Baku Province. In the past, it was called the city of Shikin. Several centuries ago, a Wizard of the Air by the name of Rou Shou appeared there. He was the legendary wizard who rose to wizardhood according to his own virtue, and then went among the people and taught the Way. Nobody knows whether a man named Rou Shou really existed or not. San County was already famous as the home of many ministers and paladins. The citizens of San County are understandably proud of their hometown boys, and when the kingdom lurches off in some crazy direction, they're the first to raise a stink. As the center of it all, the Evergreen Seminary no doubt caught the worst of backlash."
"The Province Lord of Baku also came from that area?"
Kantai gave her a surprised look. "The Marquis? I wouldn't know. Why him, all of sudden?"
"The girl I met at Rou's place said something to that effect. The people of Baku loved the Marquis, but he was dismissed, anyway."
"Yes, I see." Kantai smiled thinly. "The Province Lords are not necessary children of their own provinces. Gahou was originally from Baku Province."
Kantai answered with a troubled smile. "You will find both devils and angels everywhere you look."