n the streets of Meikaku, the capital city of Wa Province, rumors abounded of strange goings-on in Takuhou in Shisui Prefecture. Having heard the same from her friends, after completing the shopping she'd been sent to do, Shoukei rushed home.
"Did you hear, Kantai?"
Standing in the center of an assembled group, Kantai nodded. "Yes, Takuhou. It appears that someone has been so audacious to set fire to Shoukou's residence." He grinned. "Shu On was a brilliant stroke. Our colleagues in Takuhou have their game together."
"I wonder if they'll be okay."
Kantai thought it over, saying neither yea nor nay. "The word is the assailants have already fled. They attacked the residence, and then escaped Takuhou before the gates were opened. Half their number made it across the border into Ei Province. However, the man himself wasn't at the castle compound."
"Wasn't he their objective, then?"
"That's what makes it such a strange story. We have allies in Takuhou who have Shoukou in their sights. They've gone so far as to amass winter weapons, so I have to believe this is part of a greater plan of insurrection. Maybe those fled after missing their target."
"Perhaps," Shoukei nodded. She couldn't believe the people who had collected those thirty winter weapons would have only gone so far and no further. "Maybe it's a completely different group. Not our friends in Takuhou."
"Hard to say," Kantai agreed. "But if this is their work, Shoukou's not going to just let it blow over."
"If nothing else, they're not idiots."
The next day, Shoukei was preparing breakfast when Kantai suddenly called out for everybody to gather in the main hall. There she saw that all the mercenaries had gathered, along with Saibou.
"What's going on?" she asked, and was told to wait until everybody else had arrived. After biding her time there for a while, the arrival of three "merchants" she didn't know was the signal for the doors to close.
Kantai got to his feet. "A messenger pigeon arrived this morning from Takuhou. Shortly before dawn, the castle granary was attacked. The granary was set alight, and the attackers fled to Ei Province. They were from the same group who left the aforementioned Shu On."
A murmur of conversation ran through the room.
"Our colleagues in Takuhou know what they're doing. Their true intent is to sow discord."
"What kind of--" Shoukei queried in a quiet voice.
Kantai nodded. "The group that raided Shoukou's residence yesterday did not err in failing to seize Shoukou. Only twenty attacked the residence, made a big deal of leaving the characters Shu On behind, and fled to Ei Province. Both teams having made their getaway to Ei, about now Shoukou is really getting incensed. This is not the kind of man who can deal with such a provocation with any sense of humor."
"Yes, I know, but--"
"Shoukou will surely order the garrisoned guardsmen and his praetorians to secure the border. They'll increase surveillance of the citizenry and will try to ferret out the rebels. The rebels' clear intent is to disperse Shoukou's defenses."
Shoukei couldn't follow everything she was being told. She scanned the audience and found she wasn't alone.
"There are three battalions of 1500 men garrisoned at the prefectural castle, one thousand praetorians, and five hundred archers. Three thousand soldiers. Without the matching troop strength necessary to win a head-on attack, they're doing what I would do. Get Shoukou riled up, get him to dilute his troop strength, and as much as possible reduce the force presence at the prefectural castle. I don't know how many troops have been sent to track down the brigands, but in any case, an appropriate number of soldiers must be garrisoned at the castle, and Shoukou will no doubt be recalling troops deployed in neighboring counties."
"But won't that end up increasing troop strength?"
"It will take two or three days to recall the troops. That's when they must act. They'll spring another decoy outside Takuhou, enrage Shoukou, draw away more soldiers, and then rush the castle."
The room fell into a dead silence.
"Even if it hadn't come to my attention that our colleagues were amassing a stockpile of winter weapons, it'd strike me as a doable plan. But they have to raise an army before the praetorians return. They probably have no more than three days. To draw away the provincial guard, they're going to have to devote a convincing number to the decoy, who will have to stick it out just long enough. After that, they'll charge the castle with everything they've got left."
Shoukei caught her breath. How would Suzu fare? What role would she play? Would she remain unscathed? Would she come through it okay?
"However, they don't know the full story," said Kantai. Shoukei leaned forward and Kantai continued. "Shoukou and Gahou are joined at the hip. If Shoukou was a run-of-the-mill regional administrator, Gahou wouldn't lift a finger to help him. The arrival of the guard would be delayed, and only a minor contingent would be dispatched. There'd be no reason to cover for an administrator the people found so disagreeable that they'd resort to violence. Yet knowing all this, Gahou will continue to succor Shoukou. To put in other words, Gahou's trained Shoukou like a pet to do his dirty work for him."
Kantai paused and then said, "In short, Shoukou knows where the bodies are buried. If the conflict stretches out without immediate resolution, the kingdom may get involved and things would get complicated. If, by chance, Shoukou is captured and placed in the dock, he won't go down quietly. Gahou is already readying a large army. He'll stop at nothing to suppress this uprising. Our colleagues, who will have their arms full with just three thousand defenders, haven't got a chance."
A stir of conversation filled the meeting hall.
"We shall ride to the support our Shu On brethren!" Kantai declared. "And while we're at it, we'll cause a little mischief of our own."
"What kind of mischief?" someone asked, and Kantai flashed a guileless smile. "Well, to put down the Shu On Rebellion--as we shall call it--the provincial guard will take one or two days to reach Takuhou. Meikaku will empty out in the meantime. Why we let this opportunity slip through our fingers?"
"Ahh--" went the murmur through the room.
Kantai beckoned to the three "merchants." He said, "I'm giving you the opportunity to remove the stigma from your names. Together with your followers, set forth to Takuhou. Be sure to arrive before the provincial guard."
The stigma? Shoukei puzzled, but the men answered in unison: "Yes!"
Kantai turned to Saibou, man seated in front of a display cabinet. "And how shall we proceed?"
Saibou thought it over for a moment. He looked at Kantai and said, "Leave Meikaku to me. You go to Takuhou."
Kantai smiled. "Cat's out of the bag, eh?"
"I know you have a fondness for hotheads like that bunch. However, I'm asking you to start a war. As soon as your men are provisioned, set forth for Takuhou. Our objective is not Gahou's assassination, but to make the Empress aware that something is rotten in Wa Province. Don't turn this into a do-or-die effort. Lose if you must. I'll figure something out afterward."
Shoukei raised her voice. "I want to go to Takuhou too."
"Oh?" Saibou looked at her.
"A friend of mine is in Takuhou, fighting alongside the Shu On Rebels. Please allow me."
Saibou nodded. "Shoukei, you said your name was? Can you ride a pegasus?"
"Then accompany Kantai. Go and assist those brave souls."
Shoukei bowed deeply. "I won't disappoint you!"