n the dead of the night, Youko was awakened from a light sleep by the violent beating of a drum.
“What’s going on?”
Next to her, Suzu and Shoukei awoke with a start.
“The provincial guard can’t have gotten here already!”
They jumped to their feet and rushed out of the guard tower onto the wall walk. The sound came from one of the drum turrets positioned at the four corners of the palace walls.
“What’s happened, Kantai?”
Standing on the wall walk, Kantai turned his severe countenance and gestured toward the south.
Youko gasped. She and Suzu and Shoukei stood rooted to the spot. The darkness spread out over the city of Takuhou. To the south, a light could be seen along the outer loop road. A red light. Flames.
“A fire?” queried Suzu.
Youko narrowed her eyes.
“Why?” somebody asked.
Sekki and Koshou came running.
“Koshou, there’s a fire—”
Sekki’s voice interrupted hers. “It’s the provincial guard.”
“What?” The people there all turned and looked at Sekki.
“This must be a strategy of Gahou’s. The guard intends to burn us out, along with Shoukou and the city.”
“Nonsense!” came a cry from the gathering crowd.
“Koshou, what do we do?” a familiar voice asked. “Consider the time of night! We must wake the citizenry and muster them to put out the fires!”
“No!” Both Kantai and Sekki answered together.
“Why not, Sekki?”
“The guard are waiting for us. The calvalry has likely pushed on ahead of the infantry. They’re waiting for us to leave the palace. Send anybody out there, and the cavalry’s shock troops will set on them like a wolf pack.”
Kantai agreed. “Sekki’s right. Rush out of here and you’ll be running headlong into a trap. It will takes hours for the fire to reach the palace. For the time being, we’d better watch and see how things develop.”
Koshou glanced back and forth between the two. “You mean to stand by and do nothing?”
“There’s probably nothing that we can do,” Sekki said. The sound of a pounding drum burst forth from another turret on the palace walls. Sekki hung his head. “Another fire’s been lit.”
“Sekki!” Koshou raised his arms. “If we turn our back on them, we’re no better than common murderers!” He said to Youko. “Let’s go.”
Suzu put her hand on Sekki shoulder. “It’s wrong to get even with somebody out of a personal grudge, right? If we look the other way now, it will look like we did it all out of spite. We’ll lose the high moral ground.”
“There’s no saying how things would have turned out if Kantai and Shoukei hadn’t shown up. Since we were prepared for that eventuality all along, what if only we go?”
Sekki nodded. “Find a place where you can break through and secure an escape route for the people of the city.”
“All right, then.” Koshou gave Sekki a slap on the back that practically sent him sprawling. “Move out!”
A man noticed the smoke and jumped out of bed. He took note of the sound of popping wood and the strange hot wind and shook his wife awake. After the many days filled with dread, she slept soundly on this unexpectedly quiet night.
“Wake up!” he shouted. He ran through the living room to the bedroom opposite and scooped his small daughter up in his arms. Still half-asleep, she opened her eyes. Soothing her and hurrying his wife along, they headed outside.
“What in the world!”
The avenue was a sea of flames. The man at once understood that the fire had become a firestorm.
“We’ve got to get out of the city! Now!”
This was what came from defying Shoukou. The people in Shisui had been born under an unlucky star. This was what happened when they questioned that fate. Until today, at least, the destroying angel had passed by his house.
They mingled together with other scrambling, befuddled people running toward the Monkey Gate. The man stopped in his tracks and stared. The Monkey Gate was closed, and the mounted knights arrayed in front of the gate were up to no good. The ground beneath the horses’ hooves was strewn with bodies.
He grasped his wife’s arm, turned on his heels, and dragged her back the way they’d come. His wife screamed as an old man next to him took an arrow in the chest.
What did he do? What had he ever done to the likes of them? He had nothing to do with those rebels. Why kill him and all his kin on account of what they did?
For the time being, the rest of them could only run frantically down the street toward the inner loop road, away from the conflagration. The flames licked the sky all around them, filling him with horror. Here, there, and everywhere. From every point of the compass. The tongues of fire licking upwards next to a gate an instant later had crept along the ridgepoles and joined with a neighboring fire, growing much stronger.
What is going on?
Any escape had been closed off. His daughter opened her eyes and began to wail. “At the very least—” he said, turning around. A red light glowed atop the ink dark walls of the palace, lending it a foreboding and magisterial appearance. “You go to the palace.”
“But—” his wife objected.
He handed the child to her. “They’re the ones who overthrew Shoukou and caused all this. They won’t abandon you. Go!” he said, giving her a push.
At the same time, the west White Dragon Gate opened and people spilled out. He froze in place.
He stared at the horse and rider galloping toward him.
“Watch out for ambushes! The fire won’t spread easily beyond the main boulevard! There are bound to be arsonists still in the city!”
“Understood!” they shouted, as they sprinted past him.
In all the confusion, the man hadn’t budged an inch. Left behind in front of the gate, a boy perched on a horse waved at him. “They’ll show you the way! Follow them!”
Amidst the jumble of human activity in front of the White Dragon Gate, Kantai sprang onto the back of his kitsuryou. He turned to his two subordinates. “As much as possible, keep the people away from the palace walls. An attack could come in the midst of all this turmoil. Take the wounded inside the palace if necessary but keep on your toes. There may be provincial guardsmen lying in wait among them.”
“So you’ll be going as well, then?”
Kantai grinned at the men before him. “I can’t afford not to. No man’s praise can make up for Koshou’s scorn.” He shouldered his lance. “I’ll leave the rest to your good offices.”
The men bowed. Kantai saluted and spurred on the kitsuryou.