15-5 With shaking hands, Taiki inserted the key into the lock.
The fit proved precise. With a twist came the sound of the mechanism letting go. He slid back the bolt securing the latch. Through the barred window at the top of the door, he saw the prisoner again raise his head in response to this unexpected disturbance.
Taiki placed his hand on the door and drew it open. Treading softly, he stepped inside the cell. With the interior lit only by the dim glow of a lantern, the light slanting in from the corridor cast a faint halo around the face of the prisoner as he sat slumped against the wall.
The prisoner looked up at Taiki, uncertainty filling his eyes. With the light at Taiki’s back, he likely could only make out his silhouette.
“Seirai—” Taiki said.
The prisoner’s body shook as if in surprise. He leaned forward for a better look. The motion revealed that his hands were chained to the wall behind him.
Taiki fell to his knees. The prisoner said in utter astonishment, “Taiho? Is that the Taiho?”
“Yes,” Taiki answered, his voice hoarse. Seirai’s cruel condition brought a hard lump to his throat.
“Oh, don’t make such a sad face. Here, let me have a better look at you.” He twisted his body peering at Taiki’s face from one side and then the other. “Ah, it truly is the Taiho,” Seirai said, words suffused with joy that clearly came from the bottom of his heart.
Seirai’s left eye was a black pit. The lobe was missing from one ear. The scarred pate of his head peeked out from between the clumps of dirty, oily hair.
“This is all so horrible.” Taiki touched his face with trembling fingers
“Oh, it’s nothing. I gotten used to it for a while now. But more importantly, the smell of blood is everywhere. You should leave before it affects you.”
“I’m sorry,” Taiki said, hugging his arms around Seirai.
The man was all skin and bones. With nothing else to change into, his clothes were grimy and torn, the exposed skin scratched and bruised and covered with deep scars.
“Taiho, a messenger to Ba Province—”
Shaking his head, Taiki released Seirai’s shackles. Seirai’s hands were missing two fingers. Half of the rest were bent in ways that should not be humanly possible.
“I so appreciate you coming here. Such a gesture is more than enough. But Bun Province—”
All Taiki could manage to do was grasp his cruelly contorted hands and continue to shake his head in disbelief.
Taiki all but dragged Seirai outside the cell. But when Seirai saw Kouryou waiting there at the foot of the stairs, and the body lying on the ground next to him, he stopped.
“I can’t run away. Running away will cause an uproar. Rather, say I killed the guard but failed to make good my escape.”
Seirai looked at Kouryou, who responded with a look of astonishment. A moment later, his expression grew taut. He nodded. “Taiho,” he said, urging him on.
“No. I can’t run away either. If we leave Seirai here, what do you think is going to happen to him later?”
“No need to ask such a question. What happens will not be any worse that what I have already experienced. As I said, I’ve gotten used to it.” Seirai turned to Kouryou. “Where is the weapon you used?”
Kouryou held out the dagger. Seirai took it.
“No,” Taiki said, louder this time. He clung to Seirai all the harder. “This is crazy.”
Kouryou had to step in to pry them apart.
Seirai was undeniably in an atrocious state. This had never been about the torture. The objective had always been about extracting information, not oppression for the sake of oppression. Killing him would accomplish nothing, as would pushing his condition beyond the possibility of recovery.
Rather, the intent was to create the fear of dying, the fear of ending up in an unrecoverable state and to use that to extract a confession from him.
But based on Seirai’s physical state, his keepers had deviated from the program. He was living proof that the goal of producing a confession had given way to abuse for its own sake. Taiki wasn’t wrong to worry about the treatment he would receive for “failing to make good his escape.”
Seirai said he had gotten used to it, but there was no way anyone could get “used to” that.
Despite all that, Kouryou saw in Seirai’s attitude an unwavering resolve. Sensing what had been communicated between them, Seirai focused his remaining eye on Kouryou.
“There is a man by the name of Sou Kouhei in Ba Province. The last I knew, he was in Gikou, not far from Iryou. He’s probably moved around since, but he definitely should have left a trail that you could follow. I think it is likely that Kouhei knows where to find Eishou.”
“He knows where Eishou-sama is—” Kouryou murmured in surprise.
“Go to Gikou in Ba Province—”
“And search for Sou Kouhei. Say you are there to visit Fuki. They will know what you mean. This should prove most useful to Gyousou-sama.”
Taiki twisted away from Kouryou’s grasp. “Seirai—Kouryou—Please, I’m begging you—”
“No, I am the one begging you,” Seirai said in a clear and matter-of-fact voice. “In order to make sure His Highness takes possession of what is rightfully his, here I have planted my flag and will not yield an inch.”
Kouryou left the jail, half-dragging Taiki behind him, who was by now weeping with fury. Seirai saw Taiki off from the dark and gloomy corridor.
“A remarkable man,” Yari said, emerging from the shadows. She was equal parts impressed and amazed. “But it may get him killed.”
Taiki raised his head with a start while Kouryou nodded to himself. As long as Asen wanted to know what Seirai knew, he wouldn’t kill him on purpose. But Seirai ending up dead as the result of violence arising out of revenge was all too likely.
“Yari, you must do what you can to help.”
“That’s not possible,” she said without the slightest hesitation. “If he’d been left to rot here, I might agree to bringing him along. But he hasn’t been abandoned. He is questioned on a regular basis. If we brought him with us, his jailers would know at once who the culprit was.” Yari peered at Taiki’s face. “And the first person they would suspect is the Taiho. After all, the Taiho snuck into the Inner Palace on a previous occasion. He has the ability as well as a strong attachment to the prisoner. Means and motive. Would you want that all coming to light?”
“I don’t care.”
What an unusual creature he is, Yari thought. His emotions really had got the better of this calm and collected kirin.
“Your willingness to resort to violence will also come to light.”
Taiki looked at Yari, the shock of realization showing on his face.
“Well, they’re not likely to connect all the dots back to you. Kouryou and I are bound to fall under suspicion first. It is also possible that everyone in Nightingale Villa will end up implicated in the crime.”
Taiki bowed his head.
“The more important matter for now is how best to respect the dying wishes of that lionhearted man.”
“Yari, don’t say it like that.”
Yari shrugged. “I hope I’m wrong but I don’t believe I am. The odds of those being his last words are high. Whether or not he can be saved from his current state depends very much on what the Taiho does next.”
Taiki stared back at her. Yari nodded to herself. “First, Kouryou, you need to get out of here.”
Kouryou’s eyes widened in surprise. “That is—”
“Leave the Taiho to me. Someone has to go to Ba Province and that someone should be you. Weren’t you one of Eishou-dono’s retainers? If I went, simply trying to establish my bona fides would waste a ridiculous amount of time.”
“I see your point.”
Kouryou’s long-established ties to Eishou meant they could get down to business on the spot.
“And as long as you’re going, having escaped Nightingale Villa, now is your best opportunity to leave the palace.”
“Easy enough for you to say.”
“There’s nothing difficult about it at all. Pay Ganchou-sama a visit and I guarantee he can make the arrangements.”
“I can’t do that.” Kouryou was the Daiboku. He was responsible for Taiki. He had to refuse.
Kouryou turned to see the firm resolve had returned to Taiki’s face.
“What happened here will come to light sooner than later. Seirai intends to bear all the blame by himself. Except nobody will believe that a man in his condition managed to free himself from his shackles, break out of the cell, kill the guard and then attempt to escape. Clearly, he must have had accomplices. The only question at that point is who.”
Yari agreed with him. “And if, at this point, Kouryou were to disappear, he’d become the obvious candidate, the accomplice who failed to get the job done. To be sure, suspicion will fall on me too, but I doubt anyone will lodge a formal complaint or press for an inquiry. There’s no evidence I was running the operation, so we should be able to keep everybody else out of it.”
“Please go to Ba Province. And promise me you will get there safely.”
For a moment, Kouryou appeared lost at sea. Then he nodded. Yari provided him with detailed instructions about how to find Ganchou. He confirmed the information with a curt bow and a “By your leave” and sprinted off.
Having decided to make good his escape, there was no time to spare. He had to leave the palace before the events of the night came to light and the security details went on high alert.
Yari watched as Kouryou vanished from their presence like a gust of wind. That is no ordinary man, she murmured to herself. She shifted her gaze to Taiki, his attention still focused on the departing Kouryou. And there is no fox in this kingdom as sly as this kirin.
Yari smiled to herself. Sensing the change in her demeanor, Taiki turned to her with a puzzled expression.
She said, “Let’s get back to the villa. The sooner we put some distance between this place and us the better. Seirai no doubt plans on raising a fuss to cover our tracks. We should do him the favor of playing our part as well.”
Taiki nodded, and set off at a run, as if following in Kouryou’s footsteps.
I will decide who I call my lord and master. Yari recalled the meeting that got her sent to the Taiho’s side. As long as they were both striving toward the same goal, who that was did not matter to her.
Yari and Taiki wasted no time returning the way they came. They arrived back at Nightingale Villa without once being stopped or challenged. They were making their way through the back garden when a great commotion erupted to the northeast. The guards must have tracked down Seirai.
I can only pray this all ends without him getting killed.
Yari didn’t think Asen would have Seirai killed. The torture he’d suffered provided grounds for that belief. Asen had to keep Seirai alive if he wanted to recover the ledgers for the Imperial Treasury. She could only pray that the interrogators didn’t get carried away and end up killing him while trying to extract that information.
When they entered the main hall of the villa, a nervous Juntatsu was waiting. Seeing Yari and Taiki a look of relief rose to his face and he let out a long breath.
“You’re all right—” he started to say, and then sensed the uncertainty in the air. He craned his head to the side and looked behind Yari. His expression changed. “What about Kouryou-sama?”
“He’s in the wind,” Yari said.
Juntatsu stood there stock still.
“And on the run. That’s the strategy we agreed on. Kouryou won’t be coming back. The story is that he simply disappeared at some point. Nobody knows why. Okay?”
Juntatsu blinked in surprise but nodded. He looked at Taiki, who had collapsed into the nearest chair.
“How is the Taiho faring?”
“The Taiho is suffering a fair amount of anguish. I suspect he’s been contaminated by blood.”
I’ll leave him in your capable hands.”
Raising an inarticulate cry of concern, Juntatsu hurried to Taiki’s side. With a glance back over her shoulder, Yari left the main hall. The courtyard was still and quiet. For the time being, peace and calm had returned to Nightingale Villa.
Once Seirai was found out, Chou’un was sure to suspect Taiki. Someone was bound to come running before long. With her directions in hand, Kouryou should avoid getting captured on his way to Ganchou’s manse. Once he got there, he could slip out of the palace with relative ease.
Ganchou had helped many government officials to escape. She’d provided Kouryou with the necessary passwords and could count on Ganchou applying his prodigious talents to the job.
She doubted Kouryou would face any great difficulties up to that point. She was more concerned about what he did after he left the Imperial Palace. But there was no point worrying about that at this juncture. Taiki was the problem she had to deal with now.
It wouldn’t take long once the civil servants started showing up for them to take note of Kouryou’s absence. The last time, a few simple diversionary tactics had done the trick. She didn’t think anybody was going to fall for them this time. The security detail had since been increased as well. Playing their cards poorly could expose the escape route through the back garden. If that happened, they truly would end up sealed inside the villa.
Their best bet was to play dumb, except Chou’un wouldn’t be fooled that easily. He would suspect them as a matter of course, convinced they were acting on Taiki’s orders. What would happen at that juncture? At some point, Yari would no longer be able to intervene. The rest would depend on Taiki.
It was anyone’s guess how this situation was going to play out.