nho spread out the map of Kei on the table. “You can safely assume that the capital province will be located in the middle of the kingdom.” As maps went, it didn’t have nearly the detail that a map in Japan would have. From it she could understand the gross features of the land but little more than that.
“In the case of Kei, Ei Province is in the middle. Surrounding it are eight provinces. This is also in accordance with the Divine Decrees. The province lord of Ei Province is the Taiho. Essentially, the land of Ei Province is divided up and enfeoffed to the imperial ministers. Technically speaking, the ministers are not given a salary. They are confined to specific territories within Ei Province called duchies. From the taxes raised within each duchy, a portion is assessed by the kingdom. What remains constitutes the minister’s income.
“The smallest taxable jurisdiction in a duchy is a town, for which the imperial assessment is five percent. To this, poll taxes and other levies are attached. Consequently, a public servant with an enfeoffment of a single town will often tax up to fifty percent of the revenue from the operating homesteads for his own income. The largest taxable jurisdiction is a county. There, a county tax assessor can be appointed by the duke. The process is the same in the districts of the provincial capitals as well.”
“So the district the provincial capital is located in is divided up and enfoeffed to the provincial ministers.”
“That’s right. So, what do you see as the strong point of this system?”
Youko tilted her head to the side. “If you don’t have paper money, when you pay your public servants, wouldn’t they have a hard time taking it home with them?”
Enho smiled. “We do have such things as bank notes so that shouldn’t be a concern. The ministers are given land. When there is a famine, the income of the public servants must necessarily decline.”
“Oh, I see. Income levels are free to fluctuate on their own, without lowering and raising salaries.”
“That’s right. And the disadvantages?”
“The possibility of despotic rule?”
“Yes. A chief constable is guaranteed to be stationed at least in the capital province. He sends inspectors into every county and prefecture to audit the business of government. But his eyes cannot reach into every nook and cranny. Inspectors are accorded the same authority as county superintendents. But inspectors and superintendents can conspire together and pretty much do as they please. Though the gross tax rate is set by the kingdom, there is much room for personal discretion in the assessment of fines and levies. That is why, whenever a duchy in the capital province changes hands, the people have cause for either celebration or despair.”
“In the case of Hokui Prefecture, where Kokei is located, it is in the Duchy of Yellow. It does not have a duke. It is governed instead by the Taiho. Long ago, it was the domain of the Province Lord of Wa.”
“The Marquis Gahou.” Youko knit her brows. Amongst the province lords, Gahou was held in considerable disrepute. He was said to be a crafty and conspiring man, cruel in his governance of the province. Many voices clamored for his dismissal but he never gave them the chance.
“At the time of the ascension of the Late Empress Yo, Gahou was appointed Daishiba, head of the Ministry of Summer and was enfeoffed Kokui County in Hokui Prefecture. He later left that post to become province lord of Wa. When the people of Kokui heard that, not a few of them wept tears of joy to be free of his clutches. Gahou is a jackal who cut off his tail and stood on his hind legs. He’s a dangerous man, one who never leaves a chink in his armor exposed.”
“The Rikkan doesn’t know how to deal with him, either. Their investigations never turn up sufficient grounds for dismissal.”
“Indeed. At any rate, this kind of thing—”
A knock at the door made both Enho and Youko look up.
“Hey, Gramps,” said Keikei, bounding into the study. “A messenger came! Oops, sorry.”
Enho took the letter from Keikei. He opened it and cast a concerned look in Youko’s direction.
“What is it? Bad news?”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” said Enho dismissively, folding up the letter. He said to Youko, “It looks like I’ll be having a visitor tonight.”
Meaning there would be no lessons after dinner. Youko nodded.
Keikei looked up at Enho. “A guest? So he’ll need a meal and a room?”
“Oh, no need to worry about that. He’ll be here after dinnertime and will be returning tonight as well. I’ll make all the arrangements. You can go to bed without any concerns.”
That night in her bedroom, Youko secretly met with a visitor of her own. Hyouki, one of Keiki’s shirei.
“And how is everybody doing?” she asked, apparently to no one. No one besides her was visible in the room.
“As always, they’re doing well.” The answer seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere in the room. A person overhearing the conversation would imagine a voice coming from beneath the floor. That wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Hyouki had hidden himself within the ground.
Shirei could travel through the invisible conduits and currents in the heavens and in the earth. Following these pathways, they moved unbeknownst to humans. It was called tonkou, or “the art of hidden escape.” Keiki could travel on the currents of the wind but he couldn’t move that far. He certainly couldn’t travel all the way from the palace at Gyouten to Hokui.
Because he couldn’t make the trip by himself, he sent his shirei in his stead. Hyouki reported in detail about the conditions of the palace. Upon his return, he would in turn relay to Keiki how Youko was doing.
“Koukan’s whereabouts are still unknown.”
Youko nodded. Koukan had plotted her assassination and then slipped his shackles and was currently on the run.
“There is a rumor among the province lords that Your Highness has fled to En in fear for her life.”
Youko had to smile. “I thought they’d come up with something like that. Well, let them go on believing it.”
“Nevertheless, you must be on your guard. If Koukan were to discover your current location, he would certainly conspire to kill you again.”
“No need to worry. Hankyo and Jouyuu are with me.”
“I shall communicate the same.”
She saw Hyouki off, though not literally. He simply left from where he was. And Youko exited the room.
The basic layout of the apartments in the building consisted of one open room or living area attached to two private rooms. This was the case with Youko’s room as well. In terms of Japanese architecture, it consisted of two 3 jou bedrooms adjoining a 4.5 jou living room. In a big house, the bedroom on one side would have a bed for sleeping and the other room would be furnished with a divan that could be used as a bed or couch. There’d also be a writing desk and shelves so that it could be turned into a study. Between the two rooms was a living area. During seasons when the climate was agreeable, the door could be opened and screens set up to preserve some privacy.
It was also common to completely remove the thin, sliding doors, creating a large open space. More than a room, it turned into a broad extension of the veranda. Youko figured she could put a table and chairs there.
There wasn’t any class in the sliding doors at the rike. Paper was glued to the fine latticework within the doorframe, like a Japanese shouji door. Those doors were closed. When she went to bed, unless she wanted to discourage others from coming in, no matter how cold it was, it was considered polite to leave the doors open a crack.
From Youko’s living space, she could directly see the portico facing the small study that was sandwiched between the courtyard gardens. She saw a silhouette advancing down the corridor. She fixed her attention on that spot.
She could only make out that it was a man. Not young enough to be a boy and not an old man. He was wearing a cotton-padded jacket over a plain outfit. And a hat. A black veil fell down from the brim of the insignificant-looking cap. A shawl was wrapped around his neck up to and covering his face. As a result, she could not make out any features of his face.
“Who is that?”
Now matter how hard she looked, his face remained hidden from her. The silhouette appeared to bow and disappeared into the study. Youko observed this, drawing her eyebrows together. Then she left the living room and headed down the corridor to the orphanage.
Hearing Youko’s voice from the hallway, Rangyoku lifted her head. Keikei jumped to his feet and took Youko by the hand.
“What’s going on?” Rangyoku asked.
“Let’s go play!” Keikei said.
“Could I speak with you a minute?”
“Go ahead,” said Rangyoku with a smile. She took the pot from off the brazier. She’d brewed some tea in the kitchen and was warming it on the brazier. “Oh, that’s right. Enho has a visitor, so you don’t have classes tonight.”
“That’s right,” Youko smiled, taking the teacup Rangyoku offered her.
“Do you know who it is?”
“His visitor? I don’t know. I haven’t heard anything.”
Keikei tugged on her sleeve. “Hey, sis, it’s that guy, the one with the calico hair. I delivered the letter for him.”
Ah, Rangyoku nodded. She thought maybe he’d said his name was Rou. He had black hair mottled with brown. He visited Enho occasionally. He seemed to be some kind of servant. She didn’t know anything more about him than that.
“Rou-san. So then who that creepy visitor?”
“The way he always hides his face. The way he calls on Enho now and then. First he sends Rou-san. He always comes at night, and always late into the night. I know when he’s coming because Enho says it’s okay not to lock all the doors at night.”
“Do you know where he’s from?”
“No. I asked Enho, but he wouldn’t say a word. I don’t like him.”
Keikei nodded as well.
“Don’t like that man?”
“He’s got to be a bad man, for sure,” said Keikei, looking at Rangyoku.
Rangyoku gently rebuked him. “You shouldn’t say that. But whenever he come by, the next day Enho looks all depressed.”
“I don’t know. He won’t say. Just one more thing to worry about, you know?”
“Yes, I know very well.”
She talked a while longer with Rangyoku and Keikei and then returned to her room.
“I am here.”
“Tail that man when he leaves. I want to know where he is lodging.”
He had to be staying somewhere. The city gates would be closed at this time of night.
“By your command.”