20-3 Youko gazed from the guard tower at the surrounding countryside. She could clearly see the growing number of military units pitching camp among the hillocks bordering the fields. Though the army showed no signs of advancing, that didn't mean they did not intend to fight. The troops garrisoned along the wintry slopes were felling trees in the forest.
The Imperial Army was an intimidating sight, Shoukei had said. That may be so, but the provincial guard were the ones on the move. They were making siege weapons, a man in the guard tower pointed out.
"These siege weapons will be huge. They'll use whatever timber is available on the battlefield. If they don't need a large number, they'll get it done in half a day. As long as they've got wheels available, that is."
"I see," said Youko, returning her gaze to the countryside. In fact, the enemy army was not her concern. The sun slowly crossed the heavens. She searched the skies. Her patience was wearing thin. And suddenly, there he was.
"Eh?" the man next to her said, glancing at her.
Youko spun around and ran to the guard tower.
People along the wall walk stared up at the sky and gaped.
"But what is it?"
"It has to be--"
The voices arose in ones and twos. Hands were raised and fingers pointed at the sky.
"Why is it here?"
"But that's the--!"
It wasn't a youma or a pegasus. It was not human. It was some kind of beast. Its body resembled that of a deer, with a coat of glowing amber and a mane of gold. There was no one in the Kingdom of Kei who did not know what it was. They would have seen the paintings in the shrines and temples and in the government offices.
Youko made her way through the astonished crowds. The circumstances notwithstanding, she raised her voice. "Keiki!"
He flew low through the air and landed on the wall walk. Voices cried out, voices suffused with fear, surprise, even joy. Youko pushed through the crush of people and ran to the creature.
"Keiki! You got here!"
"You have beckoned me to such a place as this?" he asked, clearly aghast at the surroundings. "The smell of death is quite pungent."
"Sorry. My bad."
"So this is what happens when you tell me not to worry? You have dragged my shirei through all this grime as well?"
"Listen, you can bitch to me all you want later. For now, take me to the encampment of the Palace Guard."
"You're asking me to comport myself as an ordinary pegasus?"
"I seem to recall that mustering the Palace Guard is your responsibility."
The purple eyes met Youko's, and then turned away.
"C'mon, Keiki. Just a bit more patience. Please." She knew Keiki was exactly the last person she should ever bring to a battlefield. He would truly suffer carrying her, she was spattered with so much blood.
"Let us depart, then." He turned his magnificent head toward the countryside. Youko climbed onto his back.
The cry came from the base of the walls. She recognized Suzu and Shoukei looking up from the street, waving at her. Youko hardly had time to smile in return before Keiki leapt into the air. As he sprinted toward the flags of the Palace Guard, he said in a quiet voice, "The child lives."
A smile rose to Youko's face.
The troops situated along the borders of the fields looked up as one into the sky and gaped. General Jinrai, leading the Palace Guard Regiment of the Left, was no exception.
Why? he asked, catching his breath. Why was a person riding on the back of the kirin?
It wasn't enough that someone was riding the kirin, but that someone pointed straight at Jinrai--and the battle flags--and flew toward him. He unconsciously took a step backward.
I can't go along with this. Mobilizing the Palace Guard is a risky business.
Go! the Defense Minister had ordered him, and Jinrai had not refused. With the minister dropping Seikyou's name right and left, there was no way he could refuse. He wasn't about to lose rank over something like this.
On the other hand--
The holy beast closed on him, a red-haired lass of sixteen or so astride its back. Now Jinrai understood who she was. The Regiment of the Left had accompanied her to the coronation ceremony and to the receptions immediately following it.
The kirin stopped in the air no more than a few yards off, hovering above the dragon standards. The rider's gaze fell on him like daggers. At the same time her crystal clear voice called out, her anger evident.
At the sound of his name, Jinrai retreated another step. A stir went through the surrounding soldiers, who showed all signs of heading for cover themselves.
"On whose authority have you come to Takuhou?"
"Show me your orders!"
He had to concoct some reason, some excuse, something--but he couldn't find the words to speak. His thoughts raced yet found no purchase. She's just a girl, he'd thought. Another mediocrity like the last empress. But then where did this vibrant sense of power and authority come from, that made him quake in his boots?
"When did the Palace Guard and its generals resign their commissions and become a gang of self-employed mercenaries?"
"Your Highness, I--"
"And when did your Commander-in-Chief become Seikyou! Tell me you intend to attack Takuhou on Seikyou's orders and I'll have you all branded traitors!"
Jinrai and the surrounding troops could nothing but stand there, rooted to the ground.
"What are you doing?" The kirin's eyes turned on Jinrai. "What are you doing, still standing in the presence of your liege? I heard no leave given."
Jinrai's willpower crumbled. He quickly sank to his knees. Following his lead, the troops knelt, touching the ground with their foreheads.
"Yes!" Jinrai answered, his head brushing the earth.
"I am now giving you a direct order, an Imperial Rescript. Take command of the Palace Guard and march on Meikaku. There you will arrest Gahou, the Province Lord of Wa, and rescue Enho, the superintendent of Kokei in the Province of Ei. He is currently being held against his will in the provincial castle."
"You will then dispatch a regiment to Gyouten and take Seikyou into custody. Arrest Gahou and Seikyou, and free Superintendent Enho without further incident, and I'll forget this ever happened, both the actions of the Palace Guard and the Wa Provincial Guard."
"By my word, it shall be done!"