houkei’s rescuer came into the room. “How are you feeling?”
She smiled stiffly. “Nothing worse than a sprain. Thank you.”
The man had carried her to a dilapidated house in Hokkaku. The first thing she’d noticed when they arrived was that she couldn’t walk. She’d twisted her ankle either when she was scrambling up to the parapets or jumping down into the alleyway. She’d already observed it swelling up a bit.
Shoukei sat down with her leg propped up on a couch. The man pulled out a chair. “You’re a brave young girl, but caution is the better part of valor. The girl who ran off into the countryside, do you know who she was?”
“I don’t. She helped me get away and then disappeared.”
The man said absently to himself, “Her actions struck me as something more than ordinary kindness. That was more an extraordinary display of resolve.”
Shoukei leaned forward. “I could say the same about you.”
The man smiled broadly, a smile that bespoke the character of a good-natured individual. “Call me Kantai. I’ve settled here in Hokkaku. I’m a mercenary of sorts.”
“A mercenary? You?” His laid-back attitude didn’t match the merciless image of a soldier.
“I’ve got a good arm for it. You run into a lot of highwaymen around here. So I get hired to protect people and their stuff. You don’t really need to be all that strong. There simply aren’t that many men who really know how to handle a sword.”
“That’s why you came to my rescue?”
Kantai gently smiled. “I know the feeling, wanting to clobber somebody with a rock like that.”
“Oh.” Shoukei felt the tension ease out of her shoulders. “I’m Shoukei.”
“Shoukei-san. Did you have a place to stay tonight? The gates have closed already.”
Shoukei shook her head.
“You can stay here if you’d like. I’m renting the place with a couple of my mercenary friends. They’re an ill-bred lot but they’re not bad blokes.”
“Thank you, though I hate to impose.”
Kantai laughed. “Forget about it. After having to look at their sorry faces all day, a pretty girl like you is a breath of fresh air. Anyway, you’d have a tough time trying to find an inn after this.”
Shoukei nodded. There was still the possibility that people were searching for her. “What about yourself? I’d think they’d remember your face as well.”
This truly did bring a worried look to the man’s face. “That’s for damn sure. I’m going to have to lay off work for a while. Well, at any rate, food’s not an issue so I’m not too concerned.”
“You’ve got nothing to be sorry about. It was my decision to rescue you, after all. I’ve got my own thoughts about the way they do things around here.” Shoukei leaned closer and looked at him. Kantai smiled a bit awkwardly. “When you take seventy percent in taxes, not everybody’s going to be able to pay.”
“In Wa Province, seventy percent is the standard. In fact, the governor of Shisui is the only beast who collects seventy percent. So you’re talking fifty to sixty percent on the outside. But nobody can live under that kind of tax burden. In Wa, everybody lives the life of a refugee.”
The tax rate was normally ten percent. At the very worse, additional levies could increase it to thirty percent. At seventy percent, it’s tough getting enough to eat, let alone live any kind of life.
“And if you don’t pay, you end up like they did. On top of the taxes are the heavy demands placed on the work gangs, building walls, roads, bridges. Those walls are what you get when you throw people off their land and press them into hard labor.”
“Why do they put up with it?”
“Because nobody wants to be crucified.”
Kantai patted Shoukei on the shoulder. “Until things calm down, you can rest here. Take your time. “ He smiled a bit bashfully. “But before you go, I could use a little help around the kitchen.”
“Understood. Thanks for everything.”
The house was about the same size as a rike. As private residences went, it was pretty big. The courtyard was surrounded by four halls, with the main gate in the southeast corner. Kantai seemed to be the landlord. He lived in the main wing, and as his guest, she was given the use of a room across the parlor from his room. Her room didn’t have so much as a bed, but a divan instead.
Twenty men who looked a lot like soldiers were camped out in three of the rooms surrounding the courtyard. There were maybe two or three women, and they were all quite striking.
The next day, Shoukei found that she could at least walk, so she first decided to check out the kitchen instead of going to an inn. Even the pots on the stove had collected dust. The kitchen obviously had not been used in ages.
“Amazing,” she said to herself.
“What is?” Kantai asked.
Shoukei literally jumped. “You surprised me.”
“Sorry. How are you doing? Can you walk?”
“It doesn’t hurt that much. Does anybody actually use this kitchen?”
Kantai smiled. “Most everybody here eats out. To tell the truth, I’d be happy just to be able to brew a cup of tea. But you can see the state things are in.”
“Well, then let’s get to the point where we can brew a cup of tea.”
“Anything I can do to help?”
She looked up at him and was about to say it’d probably be easier for her to do it by herself, when he smiled sheepishly. “Naw. I know I’d better stick to the cleaning up. I’m all thumbs when it comes to stuff like this.”
“You don’t say. So, I take it you were brought up in nice digs.”
Men and women became independent at the age of twenty, and were at least capable of doing what they observed going on around them. Those who could not were betraying their reliance on servants, of being brought up in luxurious surroundings, of having somebody to watch over them.
“Yeah, something like that.”
“Well, I’ll wash the pots. You run the water.”
“That I shall do.”
His overly formal answer struck her as a bit odd. The two of them carried the assortment of pots outside, to the rear of the kitchen. There was a bucket next to the well. The dipper in the bucket suggested that whenever anybody wanted a drink they just came out here and helped themselves.
“It really is every man for himself here.”
“They’re not the type who give such matters a second thought.”
“When was the last time this bucket was cleaned? Unbelievable.”
“You think so?”
“No matter. Are you a citizen of Kei, Kantai?”
“Yes. And you?”
“I was born in Hou.”
“So you’ve come a long way to end up here.”
Shoukei filled the bucket to overflowing. She washed her hands and smiled. “Yes, I did. I’ve come a long way. I never thought I’d ever end up in a kingdom where it didn’t snow in the winter.”
“Huh,” said Kantai, as he lowered the bucket into the well.
“I didn’t think there were any other kingdoms besides Hou that did something as cruel as crucifixion.”
“Yeah,” said Kantai, hauling up the bucket. “But Wa Province is unique. The province lord doesn’t bother enforcing the rule of law.”
“That’s not true of all of Kei, is it?”
“Well, I don’t know about all of Kei. I suspect only Gahou could make such a mess of things as this.”
“Gahou? The marquis of Wa?”
“Yes. Two beasts rule in Wa. The province lord, Gahou, and the governor of Shisui Prefecture, Shoukou.”
“Shisui Prefecture. I was thinking of going there.”
He asked with such doubtful expression that Shoukei shrugged her shoulders when she said, “If you go to Shisui, you’ll get land and registered on the census. They’re bringing in refugees from Tai. You don’t know about that?”
Kantai shook his head. “I don’t. It’s the first I’ve heard of it. I do see wagons carrying people passing through Meikaku, headed for Shisui.”
“You know, that’s probably why. When I get to Shisui, I figure there will at least be a job waiting for me.”
“I’d stop thinking things like that, if I was you.”
“I told you. Beasts prowl the land in Wa, and Shoukou leads the pack.”
“But he’d at least want to help the refugees—”
“Shoukou isn’t the kind of person who would ever help anybody. If you go there, I guarantee that you’ll regret it.”
A look of firm resolution came to his face. “The reason they’re bringing people to Shisui is because they’re losing people. There’s only so much land. No matter how wealthy, a prefecture can’t keep bringing in refugees. The only reason they can is because the people who came before them are dead.”
“Oh.” Shoukei bit her lip. “So that’s what it’s about.” She’d walked into this one with her eyes wide open, and had blindly thrown encouraging words around as well. If any of those she’d met before ended up going to Shisui, she’d have to apologize to them.
“I wonder what the Imperial Kei is doing?” Why does she leave such monsters in positions of power? Wasn’t Kei supposed to be entering a new era?
“Our empress is no good,” Kantai sighed.
Shoukei gave him a hard look. “No good?”
“They say the ministers at the Imperial Court lead her around by the nose. That’s what happened to our last empress. She didn’t care what happened to the kingdom. So she didn’t care who governed us.”
“Then why doesn’t anybody tell that to the empress?”
“Tell the empress?” Kantai said, his eyes wide with surprise.
“If you’re right, then she’s got to be told the truth! Otherwise, they’ll turn her into a puppet. Somebody’s got to make her see the light!”
“If the Imperial Kei doesn’t know what state the kingdom is in, it’s going to come back to hurt her. Ignorance will be no excuse. Her own weakness won’t be an excuse. Somebody has to tell her!”
So she wouldn’t meet the same fate as herself. So she wouldn’t meet the same fate as her father.
Kantai blinked. “Aren’t you from Hou?”
Shoukei came back to her senses and reddened a bit. “Yes . . . but . . . it’s like the Imperial Kei isn’t a stranger to me. I heard she was the same age as me.” She looked down. “Somebody has to tell her! If she doesn’t find out, who knows what will happen to the throne?”
“How would you go about telling her? She lives in the heart of Kinpa Palace in Gyouten.”
“Rather, spark a flame here in Wa Province and she’s bound to notice.”
Shoukei raised her head and looked carefully into Kantai’s gentle and smiling face.
“Light fires throughout all the provinces,” he continued, “and she’ll notice the embers burning at her feet. Don’t you think?”
“I don’t know.”
This man had saved her life. He’d fought the soldiers chasing her and had given her shelter. Now he was a marked man as well. Why would he go so far? Because he’d been on the run from the beginning. Or he believed he was being pursued. At any rate, this man was preparing to raise the flag of rebellion against the province lord of Wa.
“I don’t know, but I do know that something must be done. The state of things here cannot go on. Somehow or other, we’ve got to make the Imperial Kei aware of conditions here.”
Kantai laughed without a touch of cynicism or reproach. “I think so, too. Well, let’s straighten things up here. Now, you don’t have anyplace to go, right? So why not stick around a while longer?”