20-2 The flags of the Palace Guard ringing the city had the citizens of the city in a high state of agitation. The Palace Guard was different from the provincial guard. People recognized the dragon standard as that of the Empress, bearing the authority of the Kingdom.
The Imperial Army has come to suppress the rebellion.
Voices of despair filled the streets. Even if they surrendered, the punishment would be severe. Fearing that not a single person would be spared, they prepared to flee. Koshou's and Kantai's mates were no exception.
Clearly, people said, the Empress was watching Shoukou's back. They had been mistaken, others cried in frustration. Anyway, they were the rebels, not themselves.
One regiment had already arrived, and the standards of two more could be seen behind them. Civilians rushed to the gates, claiming they were going to surrender to the Imperial Army.
"Earn the displeasure of the Empress, and it's all over."
"We didn't plan on going along with treason!"
"Earning the displeasure of Shoukou amounts to the same thing. Earn the displeasure of the Kingdom, and God knows what will happen."
They'd acted on their own and brought calamity upon Takuhou. These criticisms all fell on Koshou: "You've made things bad enough already!"
Koshou sat dejectedly in the guard tower above the main castle gate. "Why did they come here?" he asked. There was hardly a soul present. The reason was, it'd been heard whispered about that if Koshou's head was presented to the Imperial Army, the people of Takuhou could win some forgiveness.
"What do we do?" asked Kantai.
Koshou hung his head and sighed. "What does it matter what we do? Might as well open the Horse Gate and let escape those who want to." His tone of voice was casual, but there was no life left in his words.
"The moment you open the gate, the Imperial Army will come rushing through."
"Too late to worry about that now." Koshou looked up at Kantai, standing in front of him. "Kantai, everybody knows you're a hanjuu now. You'd better take your kitsuryou and get out of here."
"Hey, you calling me a coward?"
"Naw." Koshou smiled and looked around the room. "I just don't think there's any saving us. It's better not to get anybody else involved." He called out, "Tell the men securing the gate that as soon as they get here, they should get ready to escape. And watch out for the civilians. They're a little pissed at us."
"Even if we're to be executed as traitors, we've still got our honor. We can't keep everybody locked up like they're hostages."
"Koshou, wait!" Suzu cried out. "Don't give up so soon!"
"She's right," Shoukei agreed.
"Hold on a little while longer. They're waiting for us to give up without a fight. Otherwise, they would have attacked already. There's still time. It's not over until it's over. Don't rush to any conclusions."
Koshou took a breath and raised his head. A self-mocking smile came to his lips. "I'm the last one who wants to be thought a coward."
"It's not over until it's over," Shoukei and Suzu chorused.
Koshou and Kantai both narrowed their eyes suspiciously. "Speaking of which," Koshou said, raising his hand, "Where's Youshi?"
Suzu and Shoukei exchanged glances. Shoukei was the one who spoke first. "She's stationed at the Horse Gate. Even if you told her to open the gate, I don't think she would."
As Koshou opened his mouth to say something, a man came up the stairs of the guard tower. "Koshou!"
"Some people are here. They say they represent the people of the city."
Everybody scowled at the prospect, but Koshou bigheartedly invited them to come up. Sekki moved over next to Koshou. Then everybody else did the same. They couldn't take any chances that their guests might be harboring funny thoughts about taking a shot at Koshou.
The party consisted of six middle-aged men. Representing them was a man by the name of Kakugo. "Don't get the idea that we're cooperating with you," he said dismissively. "We consider ourselves the prisoners of war of you rebels. We wish to be freed, and cannot abide being thought of as rebels like yourselves. You and your gang of outlaws--"
As Kakugo continued to cast aspersions on Koshou, the other five joined in. By the time Koshou had sighed in resignation, Suzu spoke up in a loud voice: "Enough already!"
Not only Kakugo, but Koshou and Kantai as well jumped in surprise.
"Didn't you despise Shoukou? Did you like the way he governed?"
"Hold your tongue, Missy."
"I'm not holding my tongue! If you're so willing to give Shoukou a pass, then you're no better than him! You've got no business coming here and whining about it. We'll hogtie you the same we did Shoukou!"
"Suzu--" Koshou said a bit severely.
Suzu returned the look. "And when did you turn into a mouse? You've got no reason to doubt yourself, listening to these fools." Koshou hadn't done anything wrong. And nobody was going to tell her the people of this city didn't hate Shoukou.
"I joined Koshou after Shoukou killed a boy who was like a brother to me. Shoukou ran over him in his carriage. Nobody blamed Shoukou. Nobody chased him down and dragged him from his carriage. I thought that was because you were afraid of him. But if that's not the case, if you're all willing to overlook his actions, then you're all my enemies! I'll forgive none of you!"
"Point taken, Miss. I'm not saying we didn't hate Shoukou, but we want to live." Kakugo declared, "We had no choice with a man like him but to bow our heads and go along! We're thankful that you've overthrown Shoukou, but we have no desire to throw our lives away. We love our families--do you think there's something wrong with that? You may have slain one beast, but the Empress is sure to appoint a bigger monster in his place."
"The Empress is not our enemy!"
Kakugo shouted, "Then what's the Palace Guard doing here? Are you saying the Empress would condone an insurrection in Takuhou? Is that what you're saying?"
"You're wrong!" Shoukei cried out. "The Empress knows what's been going on here. Do you know of the three beasts that prowl this Kingdom?"
Kakugo heaved a sigh and blinked several times. "Shoukou, the governor of Shisui Prefecture. Gahou, the Province Lord of Wa. And Seikyou, the Chousai."
"Hey," said Koshou. The rest of them as well looked at Shoukei with dubious expressions. Shoukei smiled at them in turn.
"That is indeed the case. The coin wrung out of Shisui flows into Wa. And what is collected in Wa fills Seikyou's pockets. In exchange for burning down the seminaries, sullying the name of the respected Marquis of Baku and having him expelled from the Imperial Court, and then attacking the rike, he gave them safe refuge. The provincial guard were ordered here for the same reason. If Shoukou or Gahou were ever arrested, things could get very dicey for Seikyou. That's why he sent the Palace Guard to Takuhou."
"How did you figure that out?" Kantai asked.
Suzu and Shoukei exchanged glances. "Because it wasn't the Empress who dispatched the Palace Guard. The Empress sympathizes with the plight of the people of Takuhou. It was Seikyou and Seikyou alone who sent them. That's why the Palace Guard are holding their positions outside the city gates and haven't attacked. They've got no legal orders to. They're hoping to cow us and wait us out and get us to surrender on our own."
"You see, Kantai, for as much power as Seikyou wields, there are equal forces arrayed against him in the Imperial Court. The Court is divided into two factions--for and against Seikyou. Do you think those opposing him will remain silent while he orders the Palace Guard around like they were his personal bodyguards? But if he only mobilized them and dispatched them to Takuhou he could always say it was a bluff. And if that results in a suppression of the rebellion, well, then another feather in his cap. But if it comes down to a fight, then even for a former Chousai, mere excuses won't suffice. The Palace Guard is the domain of the Empress alone."
"But they're going to attack any minute!" Kakugo yelled. "And when they do, it's all over! Don't you understand anything?"
"The Empress will save us. Please do not act prematurely."
Kakugo jabbed a finger in Shoukei's face. "What kind of reassurance is that? The Empress and Seikyou have probably been in this together all along!"
"That's impossible!" chorused Suzu and Shoukei. Neither could hold back a faint smile.
Kantai chuckled. "Well, the way you two are going on, it sounds like you're on regular speaking terms with the Empress."
Shoukei and Suzu shared a look. Shoukei said, "We are."
"You can't be serious!" Kakugo bellowed. "Since when are girls like you granted an audience with the Empress?"
Suzu was at a loss how to answer. Shoukei caught her eye, nodded, and spoke up instead. "You said it, Kakugo. It must strike you as quite odd that I should be granted an audience with the Empress."
"Of course it must!"
Shoukei bore down on him with her words. "My name is Shoukei, daughter of the Royal Hou, Emperor of the Kingdom of Hou. Do you think it odd that the Princess Royal of one kingdom should be granted an audience with the Empress of another? If you have any doubts as to the legitimacy of this my claim, then you may inquire of Gekkei, Province Lord of Kei. Ask him if he knows the Princess Royal of Hou, whose full name is Son Shou."
Kakugo and Koshou and the rest of them stared at her, opened-mouthed.
"My father recently passed away. I entreated with the Royal Kei and was invited to the Kingdom of Kei. The Royal Kei requested that I sojourn in Wa Province in order to ascertain the state of affairs here and report back to her. Through a strange set of connections, I ended up helping out Koshou here. But the Royal Kei is aware of all of this. She wishes to take this opportunity to arrest Seikyou. I can promise you that the Empress would not be pleased to hear you blaming Koshou and carrying on like rats deserting a sinking ship."
"This is nonsense!" Kakugo's face clearly showed his disbelief.
Suzu reached into her pocket. "Kakugo, read this."
Kakugo took the item the girl was holding up. It was obviously a passport. So? his expression said, and Suzu told him to look on the other side. Kakugo turned it over and visibly stiffened.
A seal in red and India ink. No, an Imperial Seal.
"In the Kingdom of Sai, I served Mistress Suibi on Mt. Ha. Having received permission from the Royal Sai herself, I set forth to the Kingdom of Kei to visit the Royal Kei. If you wish to confirm this, please direct any questions to Choukan Palace. That is, only if you doubt the veracity of this Imperial Seal."
Kakugo looked back and forth between the passport and the two girls. The girls smiled back at him. "Believe in the Royal Kei and wait. There is no way she will think the worse of you for doing so."
"You're a scary pair, you two," said Koshou, examining Suzu's passport. He handed it back to her and stared into her eyes. "What you just said, was that all true?"
Kakugo and his entourage had already agreed to wait and left the tower. The rumors were racing through the city, and if only in the slightest, the sense of fear and dread had begun to abate.
Suzu and Shoukei glanced at each other. Shoukei answered with a shrug. "As long as they believe it's true, it's true. The end results will not lie."
Koshou leaned forward quizzically. Shoukei waved her hand back and forth. "I don't really know if the Imperial Army will attack or not. But the air cavalry has not arrived, and no attack has come thus far, so I have no reason to believe I'm mistaken. What we must do is trust in the Royal Kei and wait. That is no lie. That is the complete truth."
"Okay, then!" Koshou slapped his knees. "Maybe it's one chance in a thousand, but we'll hold our positions along the walls."
"Koshou!" Suzu and Shoukei said together.
"I believe you two. We'll wait until the Royal Kei and her entourage arrives."
"Good." Shoukei sighed and looked out at the city. When she turned back to the Horse Gate, her eyes widened in surprise. "Suzu!"
"What?" Suzu came running.
Shoukei pointed out the window. "There!"
Koshou and the rest of them piled up next to the window. "It can't be!"
Everybody in the city was on pins and needles. The anxiety could be tasted in the air. The Imperial Army was fearsome. But so were the rebels. Those who wished it all to end feared an attack by the Imperial Army, and feared as well the retribution that would follow. Those who wished to flee feared reprisals by the rebels. In the end, they feared doing anything at all, the consequence of Takuhou being ruled for so long by the likes of Shoukou.
All the day long they looked up with apprehension at the walls. As long as there was no great commotion along the wall walks, then they could reassure themselves that things were fine for the time being.
A woman looked up at the walls for the umpteenth time, and her mouth dropped open in amazement.
Reacting to the sound of her voice, those around her looked as well. Along with the woman, their mouths opened and their eyes went wide with surprise.