17-5 Suzu flung back her head. There in the gray sky above, she caught a glimpse of a dark shadow, the silhouette of great wings.
“No, a pegasus!”
The crowds dissolved into panic.
“The air cavalry!”
“Sekki!” Koshou roared.
Suzu looked for Sekki. He was already bending his bow. The arrow flew into the sky and was swallowed up by the black shadow. A second later a spear shot down at him.
“Sekki!” They all shouted. Suzu was paralyzed with fear. Koshou and Youshi reached for him. Youshi gave him a shove and Koshou yanked him out of the way just in time. The spear planted itself in the wall walk where Sekki had been standing the moment before. The cries of relief and terror mingled together.
“To the guard tower!”
At the sound of Koshou’s voice, they rushed to the guard tower doors. Suzu grasped the reins of the sansui. A spear pierced its neck. Suzu screamed. The sansui toppled over, its weight dragging her along, the whiplash in the reins flinging her to the side. She drew painful breaths as Koshou grabbed her by the arms and hoisted her up. Another spear plunged into the ground at their feet.
“Yeah, those provincial guardsmen are in a different league,” Koshou grunted, pushing Suzu toward the closest guard tower. “Get in there! Look after Sekki!”
Nodding, Suzu stared at the heavens, overcome with feelings of hopelessness. The swarm of pegasi darted to and across the breaking dawn sky. She couldn’t tell how many. The spears and arrows fell like rain. The trueness of their aim made it clear they were the elite of the elite.
“You too, Koshou. Come on!” Suzu grabbed his arm.
They didn’t have the weapons to shoot down the air cavalry. Arrows began to fly from the roof of the guard tower but there was otherwise no defense against an airborne enemy.
“I can’t believe the air cavalry was mobilized!”
“Please, let’s go in!”
Suzu shoved him with all her might toward the guard tower. As soon as they stepped inside the thick doors, she saw another flock of pegasi flitting through the air. She estimated fifteen. Just as one mounted knight was the equal of eight infantrymen, one air cavalryman was a match for twenty grunts.
Uttering a string of oaths, Koshou ducked into the guard tower. The empty room contained only the block and tackle mechanism for hoisting the portcullis. Koshou ran through the room and climbed the stairs, scrambling to the top floor of third level above the main gate.
Following on Koshou’s heels, no sooner had Suzu reached the top floor but she found a crossbow pointed straight at her. Sekki quickly aimed it elsewhere and tossed her a bolt. “Arm it for me,” he said.
Suzu nodded. She placed her foot in the stirrup at the nose of the crossbow and pulled up on the cord with all her might. Then she laid the bolt in the groove and handed it back to Sekki. She picked up a spent crossbow and similarly loaded a bolt and passed it to one of the soldiers firing through the crenels at the air cavalry.
Alongside them, men were shifting the platform of a crossbow-like catapult that faced the exterior of the gate. Following Koshou’s shouted commands, another group of men raised shield walls to protect themselves from descending projectiles and crossfire.
The large main room of the guard tower was made of stone. No walls faced outside or inside the gate. Instead, the room was enclosed by a ring of columns that formed the merlons and crenels, leaving the room otherwise completely open along its two lengths. They took axes and hacked away at the architectural flourishes to widen the field of view for the archers, and then set up temporary shield walls covering the gaping rectangular apertures that otherwise were protected only by the merlons and overhanging eaves. From between the gaps, the dark city of Takuhou spread out beneath their gaze. The sky was barely light enough to discern the outlines of the city.
They were not completely without hope. They’d figured out how to aim the large catapult. Even without hitting the target, its presence drove the air cavalry away from the guard tower. Now the cavalry repeatedly charged and pulled back.
“Damn and blast but they’re fast!” Suzu heard Koshou cursing. He’d missed. With the shield walls in place, their exterior view was obstructed as well.
“We’re out of bolts!”
The cry came from the men grouped around the catapult. The weapon didn’t shoot ordinary arrows but projectiles as long and as heavy as spears, that could slam straight through a building. They’d exhausted their supply.
“We’ve still got crossbows. Use them and your longbows. You’ve got pikes, don’t you?”
Someone shouted behind them, “Koshou!”
As they turned, the shield wall at the back of the guard tower blew inwards. Splinters of wood rained down around them. Outside the gaping hole was a pegasus, its coat the color of red copper.
“Don’t let them board us!”
With the attack concentrated on their forward positions, they’d neglected the rear. If pressure were brought to bear here, it’d all be over. Once they could no longer lay down covering fire, the air cavalry would swoop down on them. Sekki was closest. He spun around and readied his bow. Youshi drew her sword and started running.
Two figures were astride the pegasus. One bore a spear. He jumped off the back of the pegasus, vaulted over the parapets, and somersaulted to the floor. Suzu focused her attention on the pegasus. It was a kitsuryou. She recognized the rider.
Suzu leapt forward. “Sekki! Youshi! Stop!” At the reins of the kitsuryou was a young woman. “It’s Shoukei!”
As if recognizing the sound of Suzu’s voice, the head of the kitsuryou turned back. The flowing mane glimmered red in the first rays of light from the east. Suzu ran toward the crenels.
Shoukei called out, “Hey! Suzu!”
Suzu glanced over her shoulder at Koshou. “They’re not our enemies! I met her at Rou’s place!”
Suzu sidled up to hole in the shield wall and peaked out. The beautiful striped horse sailed right up next to her. The rider leaned forward. “Suzu! Are you all right?”
“Shoukei! How did you get here?”
Shoukei held out her right hand and pointed straight ahead.
Suzu leaned over the wall. Shoukei pointed east down the main boulevard, toward the Blue Dragon Gate where the provincial guard was bivouacked. Throngs of people were pouring off the street.
Shoukei waved to her and then dropped down, weaving the kitsuryou in and out of the shadows between the buildings, flying north. Watching her leave, Suzu sensed someone standing at her side. She looked up. It was the man who had jumped off the back of the kitsuryou.
“Yes. And you are?”
The man flashed her a charming smile. “I’m Kantai. I guess you could call me a colleague of Shoukei’s.”
Suzu looked eastward. “And they are?”
Koshou leaned out over the wall to see what she had seen. “Your comrades in arms?”
“They arrived before the main body of the provincial guard. Jolly well done, I say.” Kantai laughed. “Five thousand strong.”