19-2 Late in the afternoon, the warm rays of the sun slanted low across the horizon. The mornings and evenings remained chilly, so any sunlight helped to stave off the fierce cold.
Standing guard still guaranteed painfully frozen feet. Yet the overcast skies were thin enough for the brilliant light of the setting sun to shine through and reveal patches of blue through breaks in the cloud cover.
Boushuku heard Gogetsu say something under his breath.
“Yeah, it’s always a relief to see the sky,” Boushuku said, glancing up at the heavens.
That attempt at conversation was met with a tense shushing sound. Boushuku turned to see Gogetsu examining the building that jutted out from the gatehouse.
Boushuku craned his neck but spotted nothing out of the usual. It was merely the guardroom where the sentries like him took their breaks and should be currently unoccupied. Hearing Gogetsu’s muffled voice, Boushuku responded with a look and didn’t say anything aloud.
Gogetsu again gestured toward the guardroom with a jerk of his chin. Without drawing more attention to himself, he pointed at the window. Boushuku narrowed his eyes, assuming he meant something on the other side of the glass. The interior of the building was dark. The evening sun shone brilliantly off the glass. Boushuku leaned the other way. Changing the angle dimmed the bright glare, but now he saw a reflection of the outer courtyard.
Whatever he was supposed to be looking at, he couldn’t see inside the building.
He started wondering if Gogetsu, standing right next to him, was looking through the window. Just then, a shadow flickered across the surface of the glass. Toward the back of the reflected image of the courtyard, a silhouette flitted beneath the eaves.
Gogetsu said in a casual tone of voice, “I imagine Director Fukushou must be working his fingers to the bone today as well.”
Gogetsu shouldn’t be able to see through the window, and in any case, the Director wasn’t in. At that moment, a bundle of documents under his arm, he was headed toward the outer courtyard. Boushuku had spotted him walking in that direction with something of a weary air about him.
Boushuku looked at Gogetsu. Gogetsu answered with a small nod. The window reflected the silhouettes of several civil servants scurrying beneath the eaves, obviously trying not to be seen.
“Could you lend me a hand for a moment?” Gogetsu turned on his heels and entered the gatehouse.
“Sure thing,” Boushuku said, tagging along.
Coming in from the bright sunlight, the gatehouse was pitch black. Boushuku blinked a few times. When his eyes grew accustomed to the dark, he could see the tension on Gogetsu’s face. Gogetsu grabbed him by the arm and pulled him behind a pillar. Reading his intentions, Boushuku darted into the anteroom with Gogetsu close behind.
The two of them observed the empty gate room from the crack between the folding doors. A short time later, on the opposite side of the gate room, a face peered out from the vestibule where the gatekeeper usually retired. Boushuku recognized the man, a minor official recently dispatched by the Imperial government. A closer look revealed there to be six of them. They focused their attention on the outer courtyard before disappeared deeper into the compound, likely headed for one of the courtyard rooms.
Gogetsu made his move, Boushuku on his heels. They crossed the gate room to the vestibule. Through the decorative window they watched the silhouettes enter one of the courtyard rooms.
The room had been used by officials from the Naisai, the ministry responsible for the management of the Inner Palace. The provincial prime minister had banned Imperial government officials from the premises, so nobody should be using the room. When they’d been sent packing, they took all their belongings with them. They didn’t leave anything behind they’d have to retrieve at a later date.
At any rate, they wouldn’t be skulking around the manor if they had.
Boushuku and Gogetsu watched the room for a while. The people inside showed no signs of coming out.
“They can’t move, eh?”
“Ah,” Gogetsu said. “What about the windows?”
“That room has a skylight but it’s pretty high up. It’s too small for a person to squeeze through.”
“Meaning they won’t be sneaking further into the manor. Let’s get some reinforcements in here. Keep it quiet, though.”
Boushuku agreed. He slipped out of the gate room and summoned several of his colleagues. Along the way, he ran into Director Fukushou and summarized for him what was going on. The Director nodded with a firm expression and issued a brief series of orders. Leaving the rest in the Director’s hands, Boushuku returned to where Gogetsu had set up his observation post.
Gogetsu glanced him and said, “Still haven’t made a move. Probably waiting for nightfall.”
The darkness deepened inside the gate room. But they saw lights coming on in the room the suspects had entered.
Gogetsu said under his breath, voicing his understanding of their motives, “They’d obviously prefer not getting found out, but in any case, they’ve got some unfinished business here that needs taking care of.”
Boushuku replied quietly, “Sneaking around like this seems the least natural way to go about it.”
“Well, it kind of makes sense given the expulsion order covering all the Imperial officials in Nightingale Manor.”
“Of course,” Boushuku said. “But there aren’t that many. What’s their objective?”
Taiki was the obvious answer, except there wasn’t much they could do with the number of people they had. Taiki had Ganchou and Yari at his side. A bunch of bureaucrats didn’t present much of a threat to those two, unless these were soldiers dressed up as civil servants.
“I don’t think they are military men,” Gogetsu said, thinking along the same lines. “I’ve seen some of them before.”
Boushuku nodded. With that, Gogetsu’s voice trailed off and the long night began. Together with Boushuku, fifteen guards lay low and kept their eyes on the room. The painfully cold night wore on. The dawn grew closer. The chill in the bones turned the sunny day gone by into a distant memory.
The sky over the Imperial Palace was still dark. But here and there came that feeling in the air of people getting up and going about their business. The break of day would arrive before long.
“The Daiboku knows what’s going on?”
“The Director should have filled him in.”
Meaning there was nothing to worry about? But then a thought occurred to Boushuku.
Dawn was upon them, silhouetting the main hall of Nightingale Manor against the pale gray sky. Looking past the tiled roofs, the decorative mountain in the garden came into view, the arbor and pavilion perched at its peak. The ridgeline of the pavilion barely poked above the roof of the main hall. Since being posted at the manor, Boushuku had become so accustomed to the scene it had lost all of its spectacle.
He’d heard that Taiki walked to the pavilion every morning, at times in the company of others, and at other times alone. The back courtyard of the main hall was Taiki’s personal domain.
“What about it?” Gogetsu asked.
“The Taiho visits the pavilion every morning, sometimes by himself.”
If the Daiboku had been informed of the malefactors on the premises, he would put a stop to it, or at least make sure the Taiho didn’t head out there by himself.
That was when events started to unfold. As they watched from afar, the door of the room cracked open, someone inside taking a look around. For a long minute, nothing changed. And then the door opened wide enough for the people inside to slip out. One, then two, then six altogether. By the time the last one conscientiously closed the door behind him, the first was approaching the portico rooms.
The succession of shadows turned down the narrow hallway to the right of the portico rooms. The hallway was for the use of the servants.
Having confirmed where the interlopers were headed, Boushuku and his men passed through the portico. Though the morning light hadn’t yet reached the rooms, they sensed movement around them. Perhaps alerted by their footsteps and curious about what was going on, the occupants peeked out at them from the shuttered windows.
Boushuku and his men proceeded deeper into the manor. A second utility corridor passed to the left of the main hall. They crossed from there toward the back garden. As expected, a guard was posted in the corridor. The passageway east of the main hall should have the same security.
Boushuku sank down in the undergrowth and said under his breath. “I don’t imagine they would use the east utility corridor either.”
Gogetsu nodded. He drew a scarf over his mouth to avoid puffing out a white cloud in the cold morning air. “I don’t think so.”
That was when they heard the quiet creak of an opening door. With the guard posted there, it couldn’t have come from the side gate to the main hall. Dismissing that possibility, Boushuku peered through the faint light of dawn that hung over the courtyard like a gray haze. At the back of the garden, in a thicket of tall grasses and sculpted rocks on the far side of the decorative mountain, he made out the silhouette of a human form.
The adjoining property—
Now that he thought about it, the Nightingale Manor had once been an annex of the garden park with which it shared a common wall. The utility corridor connected the facilities in the park with the manor. At some point before he’d been assigned to the manor, the wall had been erected, closing it off. But wasn’t there a back alleyway still available to the servants? If so, here was another way to access the garden.
Although the exterior perimeter of the garden park itself was patrolled as a matter of course, he hadn’t heard of any resources being assigned to the partition wall separating it from Nightingale Manor.
“There aren’t are any guards back there, are there?” Gogetsu said with a disapproving cluck of his tongue, having come to the same conclusion.
Security for Nightingale Manor had originally been handled at the Imperial level. Then Zui Province asserted its prerogatives and brought manor operations under the jurisdiction of the provincial ministries of Heaven and Summer. Except the grounds around the manor fell outside their jurisdiction.
At first, the guards dispatched by the Imperial government had simply enforced the status quo, leaving any number of holes in the walls that enclosed the park and the manor. There certainly was that time when Asen appeared out of nowhere. To be sure, Asen could have exercised his own authority to breach any security cordon in the Imperial Palace. But Boushuku got the feeling Asen found a way through one of those holes.
Boushuku turned these thoughts over in his mind as he watched the suspicious silhouettes scamper across the back courtyard. They climbed the mountain behind the lake, weapons glimmering in the faint light. Doing their best not to be seen, they disappeared into the shadows of the trees and rocks around the pavilion.
“Ah, so they’re planning an ambush, eh?” whispered an unfamiliar voice.
Boushuku almost shouted in surprise. He froze reflexively before casting an apprehensive glance over his shoulder. At some point, a young woman had appeared in their midst.
Yari nodded. She was wearing a long hooded cloak. Except he could tell at a glance that this was an unusually ornate piece of apparel, not the kind of clothing worn by an ordinary civil servant. It was an elegant court robe.
Reading the dubious expression Boushuku’s face, she said, “Oh, just a little something I borrowed from the Taiho’s wardrobe. I’ll head over to the pavilion in a few minutes. The rest is up to you.”
She pulled the hood down over her eyes and scurried off, fading into the mist in the direction of the main hall.
Nothing moved on the mountain. Nightingale Manor was quiet and still, as were the courtyard and garden. Around the time the faint light of dawn began to fill their surroundings, the back door of the main hall opened and a solitary figure slipped out wearing a hooded cloak.
Of course. Wearing that cloak, Yari could easily pass for Taiki.
Perhaps seeing what they took to be Taiki as well, the shadows positioned around the pavilion began shifting about.
You’ve got to at least admire the effort they’re making, I guess. It’s freezing cold out here.
Boushuku could barely keep his teeth from chattering. The top of that garden mountain was directly exposed to the wind. He stuck his hands under the scarf covering his mouth and warmed his fingers with his breath.
At last he was going to actually do his job on behalf of Taiki.
Yari adjusted the cloak as she followed the winding stone steps up and around the mountain. When she got within a few steps of the pavilion, perhaps having exhausted their patience, the shadows jumped at her from the thickets.
Gogetsu leapt to his feet, Boushuku a step behind him.
One after another, Yari felled the silhouettes swarming around her, sending them tumbling down the mountain. Boushuku and Gogetsu charged up the stone staircase. Their fellow guardsmen ran down the now hapless and whimpering bureaucrats hiding behind the boulders and seized them on the spot.
Shrieks and screams rang out from the pavilion. Swinging a cudgel with each hand, Yari sent her attackers flying as quickly as they came at her. Boushuku reached the summit to find most of them sprawled across the cobblestone ground. Knowing the authorities would want to question them later, she made sure not to kill anybody.
Moaning and groaning, the surly civil servants stumbled to their feet, very much a bunch of sore losers. Boushuku and the guardsmen took them into custody.
Boushuku pinned a flailing bureaucrat’s arms behind his back. “Picking a fight with Yari-dono is not a smart move for a bunch of amateurs,” he instructed his captive.
Yari doffed the hood of the duster and scowled. “What did they actually think they were going to accomplish with only this many people?”
“You think someone else is pulling the strings?”
“Someone like Shison.” Responding to Boushuku’s startled reaction, Yari added, “He’s just the sort of idiot who would dream up something this stupid.”