17-3 With Koshou flanking her, Youko advanced on the keep of the provincial castle.
Every now and then, they'd cross swords with a castle guard or sentry barreling around a corner, shrieking bloody murder. Youko glanced at Koshou. Koshou wielded his broadsword in a furious manner. The blade of the sword was tipped with a thick, barbed fluke instead of a regular spear point. The weapon itself must weigh more than a hundred pounds. His ability to keep knocking the enemy about with it was a feat worthy of admiration.
By simply swinging the broadsword at a charging enemy, its hundred-plus pound mass alone would shatter his opponent's bones. The sheer force generated when he flung the sword out to the side flattened armor like a swatted fly. In that manner he warded off any attackers who came at them from the rear.
Every swing of Koshou's sword was met with a ghastly shriek in return.
"Incredible," Youko muttered to herself.
Koshou laughed and glanced over his shoulder. "You're no ordinary person yourself."
"I'm not doing anything so extraordinary."
"Then how'd a pretty young thing like you get used to so much death?" As they ran down a hallway, Koshou's breathing told her he was close behind.
"Long story," Youko replied with a thin smile. I fought the pretender's army. And fighting meant killing. If she had faltered then, her supporters would have died. She couldn't very well have hidden behind the backs of those protecting her, fearing soiling her own hands with blood.
In any case, a throne is a thing purchased with blood. That is what the Royal En told her. Even had she received the throne from Heaven without shedding a drop, it would have been impossible to hold onto it without the rivers flowing red. The pretender's army would still have to be vanquished, internal rebellion crushed, criminals executed.
One way or the other, better not to be a coward.
"Youshi!" came Suzu's cry, as the sansui soared over the roof and landed in the courtyard.
Youko sensed murderous intent to her right and crouched down. She heard the sound of enemy armor and a slashing attack whistled over her head. She answered in the same direction, reaching out to parry and thrust in return. Against this weapon--that could pierce the toughest youma--the armor was so much tissue paper. The sword bisected the enemy like a hot knife through butter. She yanked it out and whipped it around, flinging the gore off the blade. Not a drop adhered to the shining steel.
"That sword is some piece of work," said Koshou, with a grim smile.
At the back of her thoughts, Youko heard a voiceless whisper. Hankyo-- She didn't have to ask if he'd returned. Go! she told him. Get to where Shoukou is and cull the enemy's forces.
There was no reply, but Youko knew that her orders had been delivered.
When Suzu's squad arrived at the castle keep, for reasons unknown, the grounds before the governor's residence were awash with blood. Suzu reflexively brought her hand to her mouth.
Koshou raced up behind her. "How did this happen?"
"Our allies must have gotten here first," was Youko's quick explanation, as she jumped over the corpses. She was breathing hard but her steps were steady.
"Huh---" said Koshou, with a befuddled expression, casting a puzzled glance at the corpses. He planted himself beside the door. The voices of the men bringing up the rear fell to a hush.
Koshou delivered a single blow with the broadsword. The thick wood splintered. The rest of the assault group piled on, and a second and then third attack rent it in two. The tip of Koshou's sword still embedded in the wood, door collapsed inward.
The building appeared empty, quiet as death. There was no sign of any human presence. Bodies were strewn across the floor as if cut down in the middle of a conversation. They opened doors here and there, checking every nook and cranny and then ran toward the inner sanctum. At the very heart, across from the open door, the figure of a man huddled in the corner of the room.
The people entering the room momentarily froze in place.
Suzu dismounted from the sansui was following hard on Youko's heels. She also stopped in her tracks.
The man crouched down, trying to crawl under the divan in the gorgeously-arrayed room. He had a blanket pulled over his head, yet the mound of cloth could be clearly seen for what it was. And as the mound itself was the size of the divan, how he was going to fit under the divan was anybody's guess. And even a child knew better than to leave his nose poking out from the folds. The round, lumpy mound trembled.
Koshou acted first. He approached the man and grabbed the blanket. A strangled scream reverberated from beneath the layers of cloth.
The scream came from a tremendously fat man. His age was difficult to determine. That's how tremendously obese the man was. An eternity of gluttony had left him hardly a man but a strange species of creature.
Koshou tossed the blanket to the side. Half-buried in the mass of flesh, the small, animal-like, beady eyes looked up at Koshou, suffused with fear.
"Shoukou, I presume," Koshou stated flatly.
"No, no, no!" the man shrieked.
"Who else in Takuhou could be mistaken for the likes of you?"
People poured into the room, surrounded him. Among them was Suzu, who reached into her tunic, to where the sword rested against her racing heart. She firmly grasped the hilt.
This is Shoukou.
Her hand trembled. She drew the sword from its sheath.
The man who killed Seishuu.
Youshi spoke in a low voice. Suzu started, her eyes wide in surprise. When she looked back over her shoulder, Youshi shook her head, no. She lightly patted Suzu on the arm and then pressed through the ring or people, who all stood there as if frozen in place.
"So you're Shoukou."
"No, I'm not!"
"What did you do with Enho?"
"If you can deliver Enho alive, we may spare your life for the time being."
The man little eyes nervously flitted back and fro.
"On the other hand, if you wish to die, I will accommodate your desires." She drew her sword. The man frantically backed away. He looked like a fat bear trying to scratch his back on the divan.
"Really? You're really going to help me?"
"You have my word."
Youko looked up at Koshou. With a bewildered expression, he looked back and forth between Youko and Shoukou. He closed his eyes and sighed. "Now you're making promises like that. He's all yours, then."
Youko replied with a slight nod. She knelt down in front of Shoukou. "Out with it. Where's Enho?"
"H-he's n-not h-here."
The man raised a quavering hand, his stubby forefinger tracing a crooked circle in the air. "Meikaku. I know nothing. The Marquis of Wa asked me to. So I sent him to Meikaku."
"Gahou? Why would Gahou want to kidnap Enho?"
"I was told to kill him. Because he was a survivor of the Evergreen Seminary. That's what he said. I ordered the raid, but didn't kill him. The fools brought him here. When I informed the Marquis, he said to deliver Enho to him."
"So he is still alive?"
"I didn't kill him. Truly."
Youko glanced behind her, at the flustered and perplexed faces looking down at them. "I understand the malice in your hearts, but please discipline yourselves for now. This man is tied to Gahou. If he is killed and Gahou escapes, all will be for naught."
His knowledge of the depraved lengths to which the Wa Province Lord had gone made Shoukou a vital link.
A man standing next to Koshou cast his eyes up toward the heavens and heaved a big sigh. Taking that as a signal, the room shook with jeers of derision. Some crying out in scorn, a few others quietly holding back tears of despair.
The room once again fell into silence and the human cordon around Shoukou dispersed. Dejected, shoulders drooping, they exited the room. Behind them, Koshou suddenly scraped the tip of his broadsword against the floor.
"The provincial guard is coming! This is no time to get complacent!"
At once, his crestfallen comrades were seized by the warrior spirit. After the requisite disrespectful glances at Shoukou, they snapped out of it, lifted their heads proudly, and marched out of the room.
Suzu continued to stare at Shoukou. He was nothing but a frightened, stupid-looking man. Her malice for him was deep, but that malice was hers alone. Not even Seishuu had shared it when he died. If Seishuu had spoken any words of revenge in his final moments, she would have killed him no matter what Youshi said.
"You killed a child in Takuhou."
Shoukou shuddered violently, like a wounded bird.
Suzu balled her hands into fists as she turned on her heels. "And I will never forget it."