17-4 The soldier arrived at a gallop in the middle of the night. After counting the dead hanging from the walls across the mote, he'd come to the conclusion that the castle defenders had given up the fight.
A nearby vassal looked up and said, "Meaning--"
Astride his horse, the battalion commander nodded. "Meaning the rebels have control of the keep."
The castle grounds were still as death. Rugged gates and thick walls guarded the prefectural offices. When the provincial guard had arrived, the castle was already in the control of the rebels. They would have no choice but to directly challenge these formidable defenses. Even if they broke through, what they had come to defend was likely no longer there.
"Tell them to cease fighting and pull back. Launching an offensive now would be meaningless."
"But the praetorians--"
The commander's gaze fell upon the praetorians, who were feverishly readying themselves for a charge upon the main gates. "Give them fair warning as well. In any case, the rebels will have already found their quarry. Say that I'm ordering them to cease engaging and withdraw because the person who would call them to account likely no longer draws breath."
He knew that the zeal of the praetorians had little to do with honor or loyalty, but sprang forth from fear. If they pleased Shoukou, they won whatever rewards they could imagine. But if they displeased him in the least, they would be dispatched without mercy. Those who served Shoukou knew this better than any.
"Retreat and regroup. Pitch camp at the West Gate. We'll rest until dawn and await reinforcements from Meikaku. The rebels may attempt to flee before then. Capture anyone who attempts to leave the castle. If they resist, do not hesitate to employ deadly force."
Most of the praetorians within the castle grounds had been killed or had given up. Any remaining ministers had immediately surrendered. They were gathered together and locked inside the buildings. The remaining bodies of the praetorians were hung from the castle walls.
The provincial guard posted outside the castle walls pulled back and formed a battle line outside the West Gate. They settled in and awaited the dawn.
"Well, now what?"
From the guard tower, Koshou looked east, surveying the scene before the Blue Dragon Gate. The guard towers were squat stone structures built at critical junctures along the parapets. The towers projected over the inner and outer portions of the castle wall, studded with merlons and crenels from which firing positions could be established, and thick doors and walls facing the wall walks to the left and right. Such a vantage point offered a clear view of both the interior and exterior of the castle from which fire could be directed at the enemy. Closing the doors cut off access to the wall walks.
"If we don't move first," said Sekki, "we'll have no choice but to break through their lines and make a run for it." He peeked through a catapult crenel at the city beyond.
"Sure seems that way. Things are quiet around here."
The external environs of the castle seemed asleep, but no one was sleeping. Uneasy groups of people here and there, people returning to report after cautiously checking out the state of the prefectural castle. That the rebels had control of the castle could be ascertained from the bodies hanging from the walls. But more than that, what would they do next?
"Well, what are we going to do?" Youko asked Sekki.
Sekki shook his head. "Whatever we decide upon, we've got to act before dawn. Once it becomes light, we will find ourselves at a distinctive disadvantage."
"Could we retreat with Shoukou as our hostage?"
"Shoukou does have some value as a hostage. Other than that, if the citizens of Takuhou don't rise to our defense, there's not much hope for us. One battalion of provincial guards and close to five hundred praetorians are guarding the border with Ei Province. If we can't create enough chaos in Takuhou to entice them back here, we'll be left with no escape route. And the provincial guards stationed at Meikaku are currently marching from the east."
"And to the north?" Cross the mountains to the north and you'd reach Ken Province.
"Our only option there would be to reach the mountains in twos and threes and make our way to Ken. We know what's coming if we remain in Wa. Our only recourse is to flee to a neighboring province. Yet Gahou could put an end to that option by asking the Province Lord of Ken to mobilize his guard units. By the time we crossed the mountains, news of the rebellion would have preceded us, and the Ken Provincial Guard would be waiting for us."
"So it's Ei Province or nothing."
"Yeah," Sekki said with a nod. "The Taiho's duchy across the river remains our best bet." He looked hopefully out at the sleeping city.
A knock at a door and a small voice whispered, "The prefectural castle has fallen."
Voices full of surprise echoed back and forth. Then silence.
The opportunity had come to liberate Takuhou, some argued strenuously. "How many people have been killed so far? If we don't act now and prove to the powers that be that we're no cowards, after Shoukou is gone we'll be saddled with another like him."
"The next governor may be worse than this one."
"Shoukou doesn't rule the kingdom. That's a lesson they need to learn."
"Yeah, they need to know that no beast will govern us, at least in Shisui."
The voices were cut off by the sound of a closing door. In ones and twos, downcast men gathered in the southwest corner of the city.
"How'd it go?"
"Not well. Nothing but cowards in this city."
"Nobody seemed happy even hearing that the castle had fallen. They still all have that constipated look on their faces."
"No matter what happens, they'll invent some reason to be afraid. It's soaked into their bones."
"Do they think if they make of themselves a small enough target, the arrows won't find them? That's how they plan to live out the rest of their lives?"
"So what do we do then?"
A hush fell upon the darkened streets as the whispers ceased.
"If it only comes down to us, we're going to help--"
"Somehow we've got to help make good their escape."
The night sky began to brighten.
"This is bad," a quiet voice said.
Suzu turned and looked at Sekki. They were standing on the wall walk next to the watchtower atop the gate. The darkness had already lifted enough to make out people's faces in the dim light.
Acknowledging Suzu's gaze, Sekki laughed nervously. "We can't afford to wait. Daybreak is coming."
A deathly still fell upon the wall walk. Koshou took a deep breath.
"After this, we'll never see Shisui again. It may not be much, but we brought down Shoukou a few pegs. No matter what, he's going to have to account for the chaos that occurred here. Let's just leave it at that."
Dejected sighs filled the air.
"What now, Sekki?"
"Distribute the minimum necessary provisions from the storehouse. Then head straight north into the mountains."
"Escape to Ken Province?"
"That's our only recourse. Honestly speaking, if we turn toward the west, in the time it will take us to engage the provincial guard waiting for us, the guard from Meikaku will have caught up with us."
"No good. The distance is too great. The cavalry would overtake us before we made it to a neighboring province. There's no way we can compete with soldiers on horseback. No, going north is our only option."
From the start, they had no defense against the airborne cavalry riding pegasi. The provincial guard had few air cavalry, Sekki said, and they'd had no choice but to gamble that such a rare asset would be held back in reserve.
"We'll break through in the north, where no battalion commanders are stationed. It may not be much, but troop moral cannot be high."
Including the wounded, at least seven hundred had made it this far--more than any of them expected. But Koshou and the rest of them could only count it as a defeat, the citizens of the city not having come to their aid. After this, they had no choice but to run for the hills.
Everybody seemed to understand this. Heavily armed men hung their heads in frustration.
"Well, then!" Koshou declared in a clear, loud voice. "So the citizens of Takuhou are nothing but cowards! Look around, and that is how many are not. In short, we are the only people left in Shisui with real heart. And we had the gall to all gather here together!"
A ripple of laugher arose from the downcast crowds.
"We did it once, and we can do it again! We'll make good our escape!" With this cry, Koshou rallied their assembled forces.
"He really is something," Suzu heard Youshi mutter to herself. When she turned to her, Youshi smiled. "A little speech like that, and Koshou renews their fighting spirits. Incredible. He'd make a good general."
"Indeed," Youshi laughed.
At that moment, Suzu heard the sound of wings overhead.