oushi, what’s all that blood!”
Rangyoku cried out as soon as Youko took off her overcoat. Youko shook her head. “It’s not mine. I came across an injured boy in Takuhou.”
“The boy was run over by a carriage. The whole thing gave me a bad feeling.”
With the closing of the gates fast approaching, she had left Takuhou in a hurry, rode Hankyo till they were near Hokui and made it by the skin of her teeth.
“The carriage was already some ways off when I got there. But the only conclusion I can come to is that it was responsible. Yet it didn’t stop and nobody chased after it.”
“Well, that’s Shoukou for you.”
“Who?” said Youko, leaning toward her.
Rangyoku returned to her chair in the main room and continued the sewing that she had interrupted. “The governor of Shisui Prefecture. If it was a real luxurious carriage, then it was probably him. Nobody but the governor ever rides in a carriage like that.”
“He is that well known?”
“Very much so. A beast like him doesn’t associate with little people like us.” Rangyoku frowned. “There are people in Hokui who ran away from Shisui. You don’t hear so much about it recently. They say that prefectural guards at the border inspect everybody who tries to leave. Lots of bad rumors come out of that place.”
“We’re really lucky, this being the Taiho’s domain. I’ve heard the province lord of Wa is a really dreadful person. A long time ago, he used to be the duke here.”
“That’s what Enho says too.”
Rangyoku nodded. “It was really awful back then. Thankfully, he got sent to Wa Province. It must be tough on the people of Wa. There’s no guarantee that our peaceful lifestyle will go on forever. We live now in the Duchy of Yellow, but I don’t know if that’s going to last either. Even if we stay in the Duchy of Yellow, when I turn twenty I’ll move to a homestead. It could be in Wa.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“It’d be better if I could find a good person in the next two years.” Rangyoku laughed. Youko tilted her head quizzically. “Find a nice guy in Hokui and get married at the same time I get my partition. If I’m registered under his name, I could transfer my partition to his village. If there’s available land, that is.”
Youko blinked several times. “That’s your reason for getting married?”
“Where you get your partition is really important. Do you know what an intercessor is?”
Youko shook her head. “No.”
“They introduce you to a marriage partner, set the conditions and arrange for the meeting. For a fee, they register you on the census and transfer the land. And after that, you split up. That’s what an intercessor does.”
“You think so?”
“In Yamato, marriage is not so simple. Well, recently, people have become adept at getting divorces but it’s not exactly an admirable thing to do. Splitting up so simply is pretty surprising.”
Rangyoku giggled. “Yamato must really be a great place. In my case, when I find the right person, we’re going to stay together and have children and raise a family. But if my partition ends up in Wa, that’s what I’ll do. Did you know that the tax rate in Shisui Prefecture is seventy percent?”
Taxes typically came to ten percent of the harvest. Adding in special levies to support the military and the civil service, it shouldn’t exceed twenty percent. That was established policy.
“Levies amount to twenty percent, and there’s a ten percent poll tax. A twenty percent excise tax for building bridges and dikes. A contingency tax for defending against youma and funding the orphanages. It all adds up to seventy percent.”
The law consisted of the Law of the Land and the Divine Decrees, also known as the Great Colonnade. The Divine Decrees were the provisions handed down by Heaven. Not even an emperor could violate them. Laws promulgated by the emperor were known as the Law of the Land. It was equally forbidden for province lords and governors to abrogate the Law of the Land. The tax rate was established according to the Law of the Land. It was ten percent. Province lords and governors were allowed to impose another five percent on top of that. The current imperial tax rate had been reduced to eight percent and no additional levies were allowed.
That’s what Youko said. “Levies are not now allowed. Furthermore, I haven’t heard of any additional taxes being imposed. To start with, what in the world are these contingency and excise taxes? Those services should be provided by the Imperial Army.”
Rangyoku said with a nervous laugh, “That’s why they say Shoukou is a tyrant. Really, I can’t understand why the empress looks the other way when there are people like him around.” She cut the thread she was sewing with and stuck the needle in the pincushion. “Better get dinner ready. You need to change. If Keikei sees all that blood, it’ll throw him for a loop.”
Youko left the main hall and went straight to the study. She called out to Enho and entered the room. He was replacing a book on the bookshelf. When he saw her the alarm shown on his face.
“Youko, where did that blood come from?”
“I helped somebody in an accident. That’s not why I’m here. Did you know that the tax rate in Shisui Prefecture is seventy percent?”
Enho sighed softly. “I see. You heard about that. That’s why you went to Shisui.”
“That’s actually not why I went to Shisui, but is it true?”
“It’s true. Settle down.”
“I don’t recall ever authorizing that!”
In response to this outburst, Enho took another breath and showed her to a chair. “Losing your temper won’t help anybody. Look, Youko, the tax rate in Hokui is thirty percent.”
Youko gaped at him. “But Hokui is in the Duchy of Yellow!”
“No matter how compassionate a duke we may have, it won’t do much good if he can’t keep an eye on things every minute of day.”
Youko took a deep breath and dejectedly sat down in front of Enho.
“Don’t let it get you down. No enlightened monarch can take over the reins of government all by herself. Without capable ministers to back her up, the rule of law will never take hold in the kingdom.”
“Kei of late has not been blessed with enlightened monarchs. Have you heard the people of Hokui complaining? You haven’t. Back when Gahou was in charge, the tax rate was fifty percent. Under the Duchy of Yellow, it’s thirty percent. Everybody is very grateful for that.”
Youko had nothing to say in reply.
“Of the seventy percent tax that Shoukou levies, the imperial tax comes to ten percent. Gahou skims off forty percent. The remaining twenty percent is left to Shoukou. Shoukou is a skilled bureaucrat with a knack for tax collection so Gahou takes a special interest in him. At any rate, Shoukou seems to be just the kind of person capable of raising that forty percent for Gahou.”
“But why?” Why were such things allowed to go on? Youko found herself on the verge of tears at her helpless and worthless state.
“In fact, in Wa Province reclamation projects are thriving. Building dikes here and there, bridges here and there. Gahou insists that he is not collecting taxes but spending money already set aside. And if he is building dikes and bridges with that money, it’s difficult for the kingdom to criticize him. Nevertheless, the bridges in Wa tend to come falling down. Even when the rain doesn’t fall. It’s something of a joke. But if everybody says that’s because the engineers are cutting corners, it’s hard to directly criticize Gahou.”
“So that’s what it comes down to.”
Chousai had the Privy Council under his thumb—well, having demoted him, she ought to refer to him as Taisai—but Seikyou and his ilk hated Gahou like snakes hate scorpions. All this venom notwithstanding, it had to be said that Gahou never left a flank open to attack. If Seikyou could do nothing, then short of an Imperial Rescript delivered by Youko herself, Gahou would stay one step ahead of the law. Many voices within the ministries clamored for such a Rescript, but many objected just as vehemently, saying that enacting Rescripts not founded on hard evidence could plunge the kingdom into chaos. Even those opposed were distressed by Gahou’s actions, making clear how unsympathetic a character he was.
“But Gahou and Shoukou aren’t the only public servants lining their own pockets. The kingdom is replete with them. Arresting only Gahou and Shoukou will accomplish nothing. Another Gahou would soon appear.”
Youko lifted her head. “But better than doing nothing.”
“And on what basis?”
“Shoukou is a beast. But with Gahou giving him cover, getting a warrant would be difficult. If it were that simple, somebody would have already taken care of it.”
“Today I saw Shoukou kill a child.”
Enho looked at her in surprise. “Really? This was something Shoukou actually did?”
Youko explained the situation. Enho sighed. “I see, and that person was the one responsible. Do you think that it would be enough to arrest him on?”
“He’ll claim that he wasn’t the one in the carriage. Or you’ll see a mountain of testimonials that it wasn’t the carriage itself that killed the boy. Don’t forget that Shoukou is a governor because he can wield that kind of power.”
Youko bit her lip.
“It is not good to leave such a public servant to his own devices, but bend the law in order to exact retribution and the law loses its meaning. That is a far worse sin. Let’s not get impatient.”
Youko bowed and left the study. She tightly shut the door to her own room.
“Hankyo, I hate to impose but I’d like you to go to Kinpa Palace.”
“Yes. We’ve got to do something. Tell Keiki that I’d like him to investigate.”
“By your command.”
With that, the room fell silent. Youko furrowed her brow. The image of the boy rose up in her mind. He’d been so emaciated. Whether or not Shoukou had deliberately killed him, she couldn’t say.
“It is all so sad.”
And such a small child. If Shoukou had killed him, then it was her fault for keeping such a monster in office.
The boy’s dying words echoed in her ears. He didn’t want to die because Suzu would weep for him. His older sister? Or . . . Youko suddenly looked up. “Suzu?”
What a strange name. Hardly a common name around here. Perhaps . . .
Because Youko was listed upon the Registry of Wizards and everything was automatically translated for her, her language skills were truly lame. Thinking back about it now, she couldn’t recall what language the girl was speaking. She couldn’t even remember what she looked like. Only the pain and grief in her eyes. Why hadn’t she noticed, why hadn’t she taken the time to ask?
Where were you born?
Youko glanced down at her bloodstained clothing. I need to go back there, to Shisui. She shook her head. What would she say to her? Shoukou stayed in office because of her. In Kei, there were still laws that discriminated against kaikyaku. She hadn’t repealed them. If she met a kaikyaku, she would have nothing to say worth listening to.
“I really am worthless as a monarch.”