reat!" exclaimed a smiling Koshou. "We kept 'em pinned down for three days, just like Kantai wanted."
Looking out from the turret at a corner of the city wall, he could see that the provincial guard troops bivouacked there were pulling up stakes. From the start, they'd faced a fortress of a castle, and Shoukou's large-scale defensive works had turned Takuhou into the size of a provincial castle.
"What in the world happened? It's amazing!"
"More than amazing, unbelievable," said Kantai. In the turret, Shoukei and Suzu exchanged glances and smiled.
Koshou sat down on a bench. There was plenty of food in the prefectural castle, but nobody to prepare it. It'd been left up to the castle cooks to keep the many prisoners of war fed. But as Koshou and the rest of them had no idea where the loyalties of the castle staff lay, they hesitated eating what was being served. The staff had at last been increased, and the night before they'd finally managed a cooked meal. But they hadn't had the time to eat since.
Suzu giggled. "Some of the women in the city are bringing meals. Just hold on a bit longer."
Koshou sighed pitifully. A voice called out from the top floor of the corner turret, "Koshou! Reinforcements!"
"What?" Koshou leapt to his feet and ran to the stairs leading up to the top floor. Everybody followed after him.
"Koshou!" The man looking down from the top of the staircase looked pretty green.
The man's voice rose to a nervous squeak. "Dragon banners in the west!"
Koshou and Kantai practically fell over each other rushing up the stairs. Shoukei gasped, "Dragon banners--that's the standard of the Empress." She seized the arm of the man who came stumbling down the stairs. "Dragon standards? Really?"
"What color are the ensigns?"
Shoukei and Suzu exchanged surprised looks. Youko darted up the stairs. Dragon standards and purple ensigns. They could only mean one thing.
The Palace Guard.
Koshou and Kantai rushed down the stairs. When they ran out on the wall walk, Shoukei and Suzu climbed the stairs.
"Youko! Is it really the Palace Guard?"
Looking out the window, Youko nodded, her face white.
"Why would the Palace Guard be coming here?"
"I have no idea."
From the window, Youko stared out at the nearby hills. A large army was proceeding down the highway, cavalry in the lead. They bore the dragon standard. There could be no doubts about it. This was indeed the standard of the Palace Guard, who should be currently stationed at Gyouten.
"It looks like we won't be ending up under the thumb of the provincial guard."
Shoukei stood next to Youko. "Gahou's got an ally in Gyouten. That person would be in the position to mobilize the Palace Guard."
Youko turned to her. "The Ministry of Summer?"
"What kind of person is the Defense Minister?"
"To tell the truth--" Youko had to think about it. She mentally traced the organizational chart of the Imperial Court. What faction did the Minister of Summer belong to? The army wouldn't move on any but the Minister's orders. Positing that there was a person who could mobilize the army, the person must wield significant power among the ministers.
"Who?" said Shoukei.
"The previous Chousai, the Minister-in-Chief of the Rikkan. He heads the most powerful faction in the Court."
"That's it, then."
"Wait a minute." Suzu spoke up, in a puzzled voice. "Why would Chousai mobilize the army on Gahou's behalf? Mobilizing the Imperial Army would be strange enough. But the Palace Guard? That's because Youko is here!"
"Oh, it's for Gahou," said Shoukei. "Nothing else makes sense, does it? So is Gahou using Chousai or is Chousai using Gahou?"
"But Seikyou hates Gahou."
"Hates him? Why?"
Youko unconsciously caught her breath. She remembered Seikyou declaring how Gahou's behavior was unforgivable, but then saying that without evidence there was nothing he could do. She heaved a vexed sigh.
"Faking a feud is a piece of cake. If he's getting Gahou to do his dirty business, then of course he would pretend to disapprove in public. The kind of people who would slight the Empress and mobilize the Palace Guard on a whim would certainly be capable of the rest. It was probably Chousai's faction advocating the sacking of the Province Lord of Baku."
"You're right. It was."
"In short, Chousai hated the Marquis of Baku. A province lord who followed the Way and loved his subjects would be an eyesore to him."
"Um--" Suzu said, somewhat dubiously. "Do you think the kidnapping of Enho and the destruction of the Evergreen Seminary was the work of this Chousai as well?"
"The Evergreen Seminary?"
"It was on Gahou's orders. So was sending Enho to Meikaku."
"That's definitely the case. What about the Wa Province Lord looking so disapprovingly on seminaries in other provinces? If Chousai was pulling the strings behind the scenes, then it starts to make sense. A fellow of the Evergreen Seminary like Marquis Baku would prove a nuisance. They'd despise all seminaries like it. Graduates entering the Imperial government on the recommendation of the Marquis would cause them nothing but problems. It all fits together, doesn't it?"
Youko sighed again. Then she narrowed her eyes. "You've got a devious mind, Shoukei."
"I understand palace intrigues very well. I didn't hang around in the palace for thirty years for nothing. A few things I got down, if I say so myself."
"Unbelievable," Youko said with a sly smile.
Suzu tugged on her sleeve. "But what do we do now? The provincial guard was bad enough. But how can it not be over when the Palace Guard arrive?"
Youko knit her brows. "The Palace Guard are a tough lot, particularly the air wing of the Palace Guard. There's a frightening lot of them."
"More than fifteen?"
"If all three regiments of the Palace Guard were mustered, the total would come to three companies of one hundred soldiers each. And along with them, an equal number of soldiers equipped with pegasi."
Suzu was rendered speechless. Youko's green eyes blazed. "But I shall not countenance this being done without my permission!"