18-2 “Just how many—!” exclaimed Koshou, as Shoukei explained how they had come to be here. She’d returned with the five thousand citizen soldiers, escorting them into the palace. Koshou finally got to ask his original question: “How many men do you have left in Meikaku?”
Shoukei looked at Kantai, and Kantai smiled mischievously. “Twice the number we sent here.”
The uproar momentarily filled the calm guard tower.
When the onslaught came from every direction in the brightening dawn, the few hundred remaining provincial guard encamped at the West Gate couldn’t surrender fast enough. Kantai’s irregulars whittled the air cavalry down to half their original number and forced them to withdraw. Suffused with the rays of the morning sun, the palace compound filled with ringing cheers. But this was not the end of things. The rest of provincial army was scheduled to arrive the day after tomorrow.
“Unfortunately, we’ve got to keep the provincial guard pinned down here for three days. Given three days, by the time the guard hears about the state of emergency in Meikaku and are ordered to return, the die will have already been cast.”
Koshou looked up at the ceiling and heaved a big sigh. “Step on a cockroach and there’s a hundred more where that one came from. I assume you’ve got mates aiming to take out Gahou.”
“What? No. We’ve got no plans to knock off Gahou and take over the provincial palace. We only hope to sully his image and tarnish his name. That you’d actually schemed to overrun a prefectural palace was a huge surprise on our end.”
Koshou laughed loudly. “A feather in our caps, then. When guys like us lock our jaws on something, we don’t let go so easy.”
When Shoukei emerged onto the wall walk, Suzu and another girl were looking down at the palace compound.
“It’s a good thing you weren’t wounded,” Shoukei said.
Suzu glanced back over her shoulder. “Yeah,” she said. With a shining countenance, she turned to the girl next to her. “Youshi, this is—”
Recognizing her, Shoukei burst out, “It’s you!”
The girl reacted with equal surprise. Taken aback, Suzu said, “You already know each other?”
The girl nodded. Shoukei spoke up. “She saved my life in Meikaku. I didn’t get a chance to thank you. I never imagined we would meet in such a place as this.”
“No problem,” the girl answered with a smile.
“Your name is Youshi? We didn’t have time to introduce ourselves before.”
“This is unbelievable,” said Suzu. “Youshi, this is Shoukei.”
Youshi flashed her a smile, as did Shoukei in return. They lined up on either side of Suzu, shoulder to shoulder, and gazed down at the foot of the wall walk.
“It’s incredible, all these people,” Suzu blurted out.
Shoukei grinned. “You didn’t expect it?”
“Not in a million years. To be honest, I have to wonder if it’s the best tack to take.”
“Smooth sailing certainly doesn’t await us. The provincial guard are on the march and headed our way. They’ll get here tomorrow or the day after. Today’s our one chance to take a breather.”
“At least you captured Shoukou.”
Suzu nodded and turned to her neighbor. “Because Youshi said not to kill him. And the fact of the matter is, killing him would have felt good in the moment. But over the long haul it wouldn’t have meant anything. As awful a man as he is, it’ll be better if he stands in the dock for his crimes.”
Suzu and Shoukei were silent for several minutes. The warm, springlike sunlight flooded the wall walk. The smell of blood and death was in the wind, but they had become inured to its scent.
Suzu said, “I can’t believe that we’re just hanging out like this.”
Shoukei agreed. “Really. The city feels so strange.”
The hustle and bustle inside the palace filled the air with a dull roar. Outside the walls, the city was silent. The main boulevard was devoid of people. The only time a person did appear was to cross the street, walking briskly to the other side as if to fetch something left behind.
Although the palace gates were closed and secured, people came and went in significant numbers. Despite this, none of the city’s denizens dared to come and check things out for themselves. Even individuals spotted crossing the boulevard far off in the distance acted as if they knew nothing and saw nothing.
“Everybody’s holding their breath, wondering what’s coming next.”
“Holding their breath?”
“Shoukou really was a monster. In one way or another, everybody was terrified of him. There’s not much humanity left in this city.”
“The same time we were tracking down Shoukou, our agents fanned out throughout the city to rally support for our cause. But nobody answered the call. Even when the prefectural palace fell before their very eyes, they wouldn’t get off their butts. They’re all convinced that if they even raise a finger, they’ll be found out and consequences will follow.”
“Still,” said Suzu, placing her hands on the merlon and straightening herself, “I have a pretty good idea where they’re coming from.”
“I worked at a manor house before I came to Kei. The mistress there made my life hell. When I think back about it now, I should have asked her why she was behaving the way she did. But show disrespect to Mistress Riyou-sama and she’d tear you apart with her tongue and then work your fingers to the bone. So you shut up and lived with the fear and persevered, all the while getting more and more scared.”
“She was always talking about the bad things that would happen if you did anything wrong. You’d get overcome with this sense of foreboding. When I sort it out in my mind, though, Mistress Riyou-sama wasn’t so cruel that she’d ever deliberately kill me—she didn’t even physically accost me—but I could never convince myself that she wouldn’t.”
Suzu turned her back to the city. “When you’re putting up with something, it’s coming to the end of your tether that scares you. No matter how hard things are now, you can only imagine how much worse your life will get if you give into your impulses and go flying off the handle.”
“I suppose that’s true—”
“But that doesn’t mean the times weren’t tough. Because my life was hard, I couldn’t stop thinking how unlucky I was and couldn’t stop feeling sorry for myself. The people shut up in their houses right now are in exactly the same state of mind. It would never occur to them to try and take down some big important person.”
An ironic smile came to Shoukei’s lips. “Anybody who ends up dead probably had it coming. That’s what they’re thinking. But when you understand that there are people like Shoukou in the world, then you know the murderers are the evil ones.”
“People treat unhappiness like a competition. Of course, the dead are the most unfortunate of all. But when you feel compelled to pity another person, it somehow makes you feel like the loser. Believing that you’re the most pitiable person on the face of the earth isn’t so different from believing you’re the most blessed. Feeling sorry for yourself and resenting all others, you run away from what you really should be doing.”
“When someone tells you you’re wrong, you get all pissed off at them. You’re angry because they dared criticize poor unlucky you.”
Suzu giggled. “Exactly.”
Shoukei looked at Youshi, who, eyes downcast, hadn’t said a word so far. “Sorry. We didn’t mean to bug you with all this chit-chat.”
“Not at all,” Youshi said, not shifting her gaze. “I’ve been thinking about how we all managed to end up in the same place, in the same predicament.”
“Being happy is simple. It’s the getting there that’s hard to pull off. At least, that’s the way it strikes me.”
“You know,” said Suzu, “when it comes to living a life, happiness is only the half of it. Suffering is the other half.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Shoukei said with a nod. “But all we see is the suffering. Little by little, we lose the ability to even recognize happiness when it’s in our grasp.”
“It’s a matter of willpower. You know, this is a strange conversation we’re having.”
Shoukei and Suzu ran out of things to say. The three of them lazily enjoyed the slight breeze.
“People are curious creatures,” Suzu said absent-mindedly. As if snapping out of a daze, she lifted her head. “Hey, how about we do a patrol? Let’s take a walk around the walls.”