n the second year of Sekiraku, according to the calendar of the Kingdom of Kei, during the early dawn hours on the first day of February, one of the official residences of Shoukou, the governor of Shisui Prefecture, was attacked. The assailants, comprising some twenty citizens of Shisui Prefecture, shot fire arrows from the surrounding streets, scaled the walls, and fought their way into the inner sanctum. Yet the person of Shoukou was not found within.
After crossing swords with the residential guards, the assailants scrawled the characters Shu On on the walls. As soon as the city gates opened, they broke through the Horse Gate and fled. Pursued by provincials guardsmen, at least half their number slipped free and escaped to Ei Province.
Shoukou's full name was Seki On. Shoukou read the characters Shu On ("a special gift") as Chuu On ("the gift of execution"), expressing a desire for his assassination. In his indignation, he sent two hundred of his troops after the assailants and ordered five hundred more mustered from the surrounding territories to stand guard at the prefectural castle.
Just before these troops were scheduled to arrive at Takuhou, on the night of the first attack on the governor's residence, the granary in the center of the castle compound was attacked. Mere moments before the arrival of the praetorian guard assigned to Shoukou's personal protection detail and the provincial garrison at Takuhou, the assailants set fire to the granary and fled.
The fires were extinguished before the structure was consumed, yet the assailants again left behind the characters Shu On, and absconded to Ei Province. This time, approximately thirty individuals broke through the Horse Gate, half their number escaping capture and crossing the provincial border into Ei.
Clearly rogue elements were attempting to foment a rebellion. Suspecting another attack on the granary in the works, Shoukou assigned provincial guardsmen along with his praetorian guard to cordon off the granary. Three hundred praetorians were further dispatched to watch the roads and the borders. However, after two days, no assault had come. Early in the morning of the third day, Shoukou having let down his guard if only in the slightest, the attack came at his countryside estate east of Takuhou.
The assailants numbered a hundred. When the provincial guardsmen and praetorians stationed at the granary arrived at the estate, the forces inside and outside the estate fought to a standstill.
"I wonder if they're okay."
At the window of the brothel, Suzu looked in the direction of the Hare Gate. In the midst of the chaotic city, dusk was already falling.
"They'll be okay, as long as they've got Youshi," Koshou reassured her. He didn't offer any reasons, and Suzu took an uncertain breath. Koshou said, "I offered two hundred men, and Youshi said she could get the job done with a hundred. I'd say the odds are on their side."
Youshi had promised if they could capture Shoukou without killing him, she'd make it happen with a hundred.
"You need to be concerned for yourself, Suzu," Sekki said, as he strung a bow.
"I'll be okay," she'd replied. "After all, nobody can handle the sansui without me around."
"I'll leave Sekki to your care," Koshou said.
She nodded. "But what about you, Sekki? Can you draw a bow like that?"
"No problem. I don't have the best aim, but I'm not totally useless." He laughed nervously. "Do you know how they settle things when two kids applying to school come out the same in grades, character, and relative merits?"
"I don't. An archery contest, perhaps?"
"That's right. The best shot wins. So I did a lot of practicing."
Sekki wanted to become a government official. If he wished to make anything of himself in this kingdom, that was his first step, Sekki had the brains to succeed. In fact, he had an almost uncanny ability to read things right.
First, we send out twenty to get Shoukou all riled up.
These twenty had set fire to Shoukou's official residence on the inner loop road. Then hightailed it out of there. The next time, thirty struck the granary.
The granary was a warehouse that stored grain against times of famine. Setting it alight was a bold gesture on Sekki's part. "Our actual intent is not to burn it down," he explained. "And if by chance it should be consumed, Shoukou never had any intent on distributing it to the people, anyway."
But by doing so, Shoukou would have to post guards. And when the attackers fled, in a rage, they would chase after them. Shoukou would recall the constabulary from the surrounding districts and harden defenses around the castle.
That's what Sekki predicted, and that's exactly what happened.
"Next, we raid his countryside estate with two hundred men, who will barricade themselves inside the walls. Eventually the provincial guard will be called in."
Based on the precedents established after the previous two incidents, Shoukou would dispatch his praetorian guard to the border with Ei Province. As the previous attackers had numbered twenty and thirty respectively, when two hundred rebels showed up in force, he would conclude that he now had the measure of their entire contingent. The possibility was high that the inflamed Shoukou would redeploy his forces from the castle perimeter to his personal manse.
And in fact, two battalions of provincial guardsmen and half as many praetorians surrounded the estate, with another battalion manning the blockades along the highways. Left in Takuhou were five hundred constables and five hundred of Shoukou's personal security detail. Of them, in the afternoon, half were ordered to the estate, and those remaining were dispersed to stand watch in the city, guard the prefectural castle, and protect the granary.
Koshou raised his sword, and then lightly planted the tip in the earth. The long blade glimmered. "There should be two hundred or so fools left in the castle." Suzu turned to him when he spoke. "Watch out for the crossbows. With your back against the sky, you'll stand out like a sore thumb."
Suzu grasped her short sword and nodded. They and their more than 800 compatriots assaulting the castle possessed no satisfactory defenses.
"We'll see you later, I guess?"
Outside the window, the dusk was falling. The few left behind watched Suzu and her party leave the brothel. They and a few dozen others scattered throughout the city still had things to do that needed to get done.
"It's getting dark."
Youko wiped the falling dew from the blade and looked at the sky beyond the tower gates. Like Shoukou's own elevated pride, the ramparts surrounding his estate were surprisingly high. He was apparently possessed of the conviction that not even the treetops in his carefully groomed arbor should be seen by the hoi polloi.
Of the hundred-odd armed farmers and citizen-soldiers with her, by and large the majority of them were still in fine fettle. They were well protected by the bulwarks and watchtowers that Shoukou himself had built.
"The sun is down," Youko said. "They'll be coming over the walls." A man arming his crossbow next to her nodded. She said, "Retreat toward the main hall, link up with them there, and then regroup."
The man warily slid his gaze across the perimeter, and started back toward the main hall. The others followed after him in twos and threes.
Bringing up the rear, Youko said as if to herself, "Hankyo--"
Yes, came the whisper of his voice.
"After this, I'll leave the rest up to the shirei." She had borrowed from Keiki every shirei he could spare.
"You should escape to the Imperial Palace and muster the Imperial Army."
"Do you think what Keiki could not achieve I would be able to accomplish?"
Dismiss Shoukou, she had demanded of him. Or else mobilize the Ei Provincial Guard. Neither request had been honored. The ministers wanted details about why she wanted to dismiss Shoukou. A letter dispatched with Hankyou, carrying the Imperial Seal, proved similarly useless. Ultimately, her request to mobilize even the Ei Provincial Guard was refused.
"Prepare for the worst. We only have ourselves to rely on. Fly with the night and reduce the enemies' numbers as much as possible."
"Is this your desire, Empress?"
Youko replied with a bitter smile. "You have my permission."