uzu watched as the creature and its rider alighted upon the wall alongside the Horse Gate.
"It is," came Shoukei's voice.
"I wonder if it's right to bring a kirin to a place like this."
The question of how to deal with the solid wall of humanity surrounding them was written on all their faces. Suzu hadn't the slightest idea herself. She wanted to call out to Youko and run to her, but that didn't feel like the right thing to do.
As they all hesitated, Youko bid the kirin goodbye and turned around. "Hey, everything's going to be fine."
Her smile broke the ice. Suzu and Shoukei quickly crossed the short distance between them.
"Everything's okay? Really?"
"The Imperial forces, too?"
"I dispatched them to Meikaku with orders to arrest Gahou."
"Yes!" Suzu and Shoukei cheered together. But the people standing stock still behind them still gaped in amazement.
"Koshou! Didn't you hear? Everything's going to be fine!"
"Kantai! The Imperial Army will take care of Gahou!"
The two big men blinked in bewilderment. At last, the moment broke. Kantai was the first to sink to his knees.
In a flurry, everybody else copied him. Koshou remained standing, staring flabbergasted at the kneeling crowd. Sekki called out, "For heaven's sakes, brother, bow!"
"I, ah, but--"
Youko couldn't help giggling at the sight of the poor, confused Koshou. "No, you really don't have to. C'mon, everybody. Stand up."
Of course, nobody dared lift his head. Only the befuddled Koshou remained standing.
Youko said, "I am sorry that my incompetence should have caused the people of Takuhou so much distress, and wish to apologize to them." She turned to Koshou. "And to Koshou and all his kith and kin, I express my heartfelt thanks. In Shoukou's very shadow, you never gave up the good fight and remained true to the cause. You did what I could not, and for that I am grateful."
"Well, you know, it was nothing."
Youko smiled and looked out over the crowds. Heads were popping up here and there. "And to Kantai and his loyal band, I offer my deepest regards. If there is anything you desire, please tell me now."
Kantai lifted his head with a start. "May I truly ask anything of Your Highness?"
"Anything at all."
"Well--" Kantai said, glancing on the two men flanking him, and then at Youko. He again bowed his head. "I wish to dispel any doubts about the dismissal of Marquis Koukan, former Province Lord of Baku. I ask you to please receive the Marquis at Court!"
"Koukan--" Youko couldn't hide her surprise. "Kantai, are you a citizen of Baku Province?"
"My name is Sei Shin, former general in the Provincial Guard of Baku. And these are two of my regimental commanders--"
The two men Kantai indicated bowed deeply as well. One of them spoke up. "Pardon me, Empress, but I regret to inform Your Highness that soon after the pretender usurped the throne, my troops surrendered to her army. Given the opportunity to wipe away that disgrace, I followed General Sei here."
"I see," said Youko, gazing down at the three bowed heads. Of course, Kantai was no ordinary person. He was here with his comrades-in-arms, who had once been his officers. And now that she thought about it, Kantai's mates had always showed him the greatest deference.
"There is something I wish to ask you, first. Did you gather here in Wa Province on Koukan's orders?"
"That is indeed the case."
They had met once before at her coronation, but Youko couldn't remember his face. But based on the men he had gathered around himself, she could imagine what kind of a person the Marquis was.
"Kantai, I wish you to express my appreciation to Koukan for all he has done. Tell your lord that if he can find it in his heart to serve this foolish empress, then I would indeed ask him to visit Gyouten as soon as possible."
Kantai lifted his head and for a moment looked up at her face before bowing once more. "Upon my word, it shall be done!"
Youko nodded and walked over to Koshou, who still seemed completely at sea. She patted him on the arm and pointed at the guard tower. "Why don't we open the gates? There's no need to keep them shut any longer."
"Ah, right," said Koshou, with a big grin.
As he hurried along behind her, she glanced over her shoulder and asked, "Is there anything you'd like, Koshou?"
"Nothing comes to mind. Just seeing Shoukou brought to justice is enough for me."
"Nothing at all?"
Koshou smiled a bit sheepishly. "This here's all I've been thinking about." He stopped walking and Youko paused as well. "Am I going to be punished?"
Youko sighed to herself. "Why would you think that?"
"I made a pretty big mess of things around here."
"Well, if I punished you, Koshou, then wouldn't I have to impose those same penalties on myself?"
"Yeah, I guess so." Koshou grinned. "Oh, that's right!" he said, looking at her. "Now, I'm just asking you as a good mate, see, as a fellow soldier who ate out of the same pot with the rest of us. But there is a small favor I'd like to ask of you."
"You being some sort of real important person and all, I was thinking maybe you'd know the right people who could make it happen. I was just wondering if you could arrange for Sekki to get into a good school in Ei Province--?"
Watching this exchange, Suzu and Shoukei burst out laughing. Even Youko couldn't keep a straight face.
"Eh? What'd I say?"
The ramparts filled with warm laughter brighter than sunlight.