16-4 The man led Youko to a block in the southwest quadrant of the city, to a row of inns that had long since gone to the dogs. The green paint had mostly peeled off the faded, soot-stained walls. This turquoise color was rare, specially reserved for buildings used as brothels.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Don’t get snooty,” the man replied. “You’ll understand once you meet Koshou. That’s why I brought you here. Don’t start distrusting me now.”
They entered the brothel. Immediately inside the brothel was a small dining hall. Hardly anybody was there. An old man hurried out to meet them. Following behind her guide, Youko stood with her back to the door and watched as he and the old man exchanged a few words.
The man retreated into the back room. Soon, in his place, emerged the man she’d met before.
“And you’re Koshou?”
The man nodded. He gestured toward the dining hall with his chin. “Have a seat. But a meal costs even more than it did before.”
“I came here to ask you a few questions.”
“So sit. I’ve got no reason to cross swords with you.”
Youko hesitated, spotting two or three other men poking their heads out from the back room. But not sensing in the least any impending assault, she nodded and took a seat.
“You were in Hokui.”
Koshou sat down opposite her. “I was. As I recall, I was leaving the house of an associate of mine.”
“You didn’t say so before.”
“I’ve got reasons of my own for holding my tongue. I’m telling you now, so give me a break.”
“For quite some time, a suspicious character has been coming by the rike. The man who led him there was Rou.”
“The rike?” Koshou asked, disbelievingly. Her guide and the old man were also at a loss for words.
“The rike in Kokei. I’ve been staying there.”
“Whatever the case, Rou is an intermediary. It’s rare for him to extend his services to people but not so rare for him to be around running errands. Rou and I go way back. I guess you didn’t know that.”
“Before the rike was attacked, some men seemed to be checking the place out. They returned to Takuhou.”
“Attacked? The rike in Kokei was attacked?”
Youko nodded. Koshou was so truly astonished that she almost shook her head in wonder.
Koshou glanced back over his shoulder. “Somebody go get Suzu!”
Suzu’s eyes opened wide when she saw Youko sitting there. Before Youko could speak, Koshou said, “Suzu, when you were in Houkaku didn’t you hear talk about somebody getting kidnapped?”
Suzu nodded. “There was talk about a rike in Eishuu being attacked and the superintendent kidnapped.”
“What was the city? And the name of the superintendent who was kidnapped?”
“I didn’t get the name of the city. As for the man’s name . . . I know it was mentioned, but I can’t recall.”
“Enho,” Youko interjected.
Suzu nodded forcefully. “Yes, that’s right. It was Enho.”
Koshou turned back to Youko. “Enho was kidnapped? Really?”
“Do you know him? Enho?”
“My little brother has attended his lectures on occasion. I went with him once. To be sure, it was Rou who made the introductions. Enho is a renown scholar. I wanted him to meet my brother.”
“Brother—oh, the boy I met before? Fourteen or so?”
“That’s right, Sekki. You really don’t know where Enho is? Was anybody at the rike injured?”
Youko took a breath. Koshou truly looked as if this had all hit him from out of blue. That being the case, the trail for the real criminals had again run cold. “A girl was murdered.”
“That would have been Rangyoku?”
Youko nodded. “Shady types had been hanging around the rike. Everything I knew pointed to you. To make matters worse, after the rike was attacked, you packed up and left.”
Koshou smiled at the irony. “We had things on our hands as well. Not something to make a big deal about, but people snooping around puts us on edge. There was this suspicious character who came around twice. We didn’t like the way the wind was blowing, and pulled up stakes.”
“Where did you go?”
“Not far off. That was the same day the rike was attacked?”
Youko nodded. “Sometime between noon and sundown. Probably about the same time I was talking with Suzu or just after.”
“I was in the inn the same time you were. I returned when you were talking to Suzu.”
“Eh?” Youko said, looking at him.
“You were talking about the marquis of Baku. You seemed awful suspicious to me. I spied on you from the kitchen.” He spoke with the same wry smile.
“It was Shoukou,” Suzu said in a low voice. Youko turned to her. “That day, after the gates of Takuhou closed, a wagon returned to the city and the gates were opened again to let it in.”
“I see,” she heard a small voice behind her say. She glanced back over her shoulder. Sekki was standing there.
“Have you thought about why Enho would be targeted?”
“No,” Youko answered honestly.
“What kind of person is Enho?”
“I know that he was originally a citizen of Baku. That’s all.”
Sekki nodded. “He was connected with the Evergreen Seminary in Baku Province. He wasn’t an instructor, though I’ve heard that he consulted with people in a similar capacity as that of a teacher. Beyond that, I don’t know much more.”
“The Evergreen Seminary?”
“In the middle of the city in San County. A highly respected private school dedicated to the teaching of the Way. Last year it was raided by arsonists. The school was destroyed and all the instructors killed, but a number of people managed to survive. Rou has mentioned that he was attending the Evergreen Seminary, so I’m sure he has some connections to it.”
“So all these people who came to visit Enho—”
“Most likely, yes. Rou earnestly asked that this not be divulged. Even today, people connected to the Evergreen Seminary are being hunted down.”
“Hunted down? Why?”
Sekki answered plainly. “Because it’s a thorn in the side of those who have fallen from the Way following after their own selfish desires.”
“Men like that—”
“Men like that can’t abide people knowing about the Way. They can’t abide it when they take up the reins of government. You see, if they don’t surround themselves with people like them, who claim not to give a damn about Virtue or the Way, they’ll be deposed sooner or later.”
“I’ve heard that the province lord of Baku attended the Evergreen Seminary as well. Because they found his existence so intolerable, they plotted to unseat him. Those who followed the pretender on one side and the marquis—who opposed her—on the other. If he turned out to be right, then all those who followed her would lose their place of power. So they whispered half-truths in the ear of the empress and entrapped the marquis. That’s the kind of people we’re dealing with.”
“Indeed,” Youko said, placing a hand on her forehead.
“According to Rou, the attack on the Evergreen Seminary came at the instigation of the vice-minister in the Shisui Prefecture Ministry of Summer.”
“We asked for further details but nobody would talk, so we only heard this second-hand. The criminals who attacked and burned the Evergreen Seminary were said to be itinerants, coiled snakes that crawled out of Takuhou. Right after the attack, the current vice-minister, a mere itinerant at the time, was promoted to the ministry. That’s some promotion. The criminals and the vice-minister were surely acquaintances.”
“Shoukou, you mean.”
Sekki nodded. “The vice-minister was pulling the strings behind the scenes. The mastermind was surely Shoukou. I have no idea why Shoukou should so despise a seminary in Baku Province. But if he knew that survivors from the seminary were in Hokui, he’d make every effort to finish them off. That’s the kind of man he is.”
Youko looked at the face of the boy who was relating all this so calmly. “So Enho is perhaps in Takuhou?”
“The possibility is high. Whether alive or dead, I can’t say.”
Youko jumped to her feet.
“Hey, where you going?
She stopped at the sound of Koshou’s voice. “I’m going to rescue him.”
“Don’t talk nonsense!”
“I have to!” She owned him that debt of moral obligation and respect. Rangyoku was dead and Keikei lay at death’s door. But she could save Enho.
Koshou grabbed her by the arm. She jerked herself free. Sekki stood in front of her and blocked the way. She took him by the shoulders and pushed him to the side.
“Youshi! Wait!” Suzu’s shrill voice froze her in her tracks. “Shoukou has dozens of guards at his beck and call. His carriage entered Takuhou but do you have any idea where he went? Or the many places Shoukou could be imprisoning his detractors? Don’t leap before you look.”
“But—” Youko started to say, when Koshou again took a hold of her arm.
“We have associates constantly keeping an eye on Shoukou. I think they’ll know where that troublesome carriage ended up.”
“We’ve been on his trail for three years. There’s not a day that goes by when we don’t know what the bastard’s been up to.”
“Koshou—you—” Youko scanned the faces of men in the dining hall, whose numbers had at some point swelled to a dozen or more. “You are—?”
If she’d thought it through, this was the conclusion she should have come to. There was no way Suzu’s malice toward Shoukou would have abated in the least.
Koshou lightly clapped Youko on the back. “You’re packing a helluva weapon there but can it cut a wizard? Or should I ask, can you wield a sword that will cut a wizard?”
Youko smiled thinly. “To the bone.”
Koshou sent off a messenger, who returned past midnight. Koshou looked at the people assembled in the main hall. “The carriage entered the prefectural palace. As you all know, Shoukou hasn’t left his official residence at the palace lately.”
Youko glanced at the nodding faces. The faces of those willing and able to do what I cannot.
“We don’t know why he brought Enho back to the prefectural palace. But that’s how the man operates. He’s definitely up to no good. If Enho still lives, then I want to rescue him.”
The silence filled with a powerful feeling of mutual consent.
“In any case, I don’t intend to wait much longer to get things rolling. That could mean tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow.” Having spoken his mind, Koshou surveyed the crowd gathered in the main hall. “What say you?”
His question was answered with a shout of approval.
“Good!” Koshou said with a nod. “We have bided our time for three years. The moment has come to bring an end to Shoukou’s rule!”