7-2 Rokuta opened his eyes. His eyelids were so heavy it took several moments for him to focus on his surroundings.
The sound a hurried footsteps, a woman’s voice. It couldn’t be Ribi, of course. Remembering that, Rokuta groaned aloud.
Rokuta covered his face with his hands. Why go to such lengths? All, in the end, for the emperor.
A woman leaned over him and said, her voice very close, “How are you doing? Are you in pain?”
Rokuta shook his head.
“You were asleep for a long time. We were very worried.”
Rokuta put down his hands and sat up. The world spun. “How long?”
His attendant was a woman in her thirties. Her court dress identified her as a low-ranked deputy minister.
“It’s been a full week.”
“A week. What about the Imperial Army?” He cast her a worried look. The war couldn’t have started already.
She shook her head. “They’re camped on the opposite banks of the Rokusui and haven’t moved.” She added with a nervous laugh, “But they are building up the levees.”
“They’re doing what?”
Was Shouryuu attempting to ingratiate himself with the rebellious province at this late date? Though Rokuta was grateful fighting hadn’t yet broken out.
“Is it all right for you to move?”
Rokuta nodded. A heavy fatigue still dulled his senses but this was no time to sleep. Climbing down from the bed, he stopped. I have to do something before war breaks out. But he didn’t have a clue what to do.
The deputy minister draped a robe around his shoulders. Rokuta slid his arms through the sleeves. As he got dressed, he felt on a cool sensation on his forehead.
He touched it with the tips of his fingers. The deputy minister said, “I’m really sorry about that. It must be uncomfortable. I don’t know how to take it off.”
“That’s okay,” Rokuta said softly, muffling his surprise.
The stone wasn’t touching his horn. Though affixed to his forehead, it was offset just a tad so that all Rokuta felt was the cold hardness against his skin, none of its binding power.
Kouya, Rokuta said in his heart.
Kouya had gone through the motions. Perhaps because Rokuta found it so displeasing or out of consideration for his physical condition, Kouya hadn’t sealed the spell.
“Can you move around?”
Rokuta glanced up at her with a dubious expression. With a gentle smile she held out a cloth satchel.
“This contains all the basic necessities. You should get away from here as fast as possible?”
“We rebelled against the emperor believing we could secure a better future for our subjects by ourselves. We did not intend to set the kingdom once again on a downward course. We did not think deeply about the emperor’s priorities or the consequences of our own actions. We only waxed indignant at the chaos around us and lashed out in anger. If you could rejoin the Imperial Army, return to the palace, and relay to His Highness these words of apology on our behalf—”
“If you do something like this—”
“Please.” The deputy minister draped a veil over Rokuta’s head. “The rumors cannot do justice to the depths of the Taiho’s compassion. That you allowed yourself to be imprisoned here to spare the life a single baby tells me all I need to know. As long as you remain at the emperor’s side, I know that he will not be a heartless man. The people of Gen Province have surely acted in a most foolish manner.”
She urged him to his feet. Rokuta stood there in confusion. Something was going on in Gen Province. Such had been the widespread affection for Atsuyu that the resolve of the entire province approached the monolithic. That unity was now crumbling to bits inside the palace itself.
“Did Atsuyu sign off on this? He’d be giving up his one remaining hostage.”
The deputy minister sadly shook her head. “He’s changed. If he really cared about his subjects—”
The deputy minister ignored Rokuta’s query and pushed him forward. “Turn right after you leave the room. Go around the corner and you’ll come to a flight of stairs leading to a tunnel. The tunnel ends in the Inner Palace. At the back of Choumei Palace, head straight down. Once you get to the lowest level, a path will lead you out of the palace.”
“I know you must still be in pain. But do not let this opportunity slip by. Another like won’t present itself again. It was only luck that gave me this moment alone with you. I am begging you. Return to Kankyuu. Do not let the sacrifice of the governor general go to waste.”
The deputy minister pushed Rokuta out of the room. He was about to protest that she’d surely have to answer for her actions when she the door shut in his face.
After a moment of confusion, Rokuta started walking. His knees threatened to buckle with each step. He braced himself against the walls to stay on his feet. He briefly considered calling to his shirei. Perhaps due to the lingering effects of the bloody miasma, he couldn’t discipline his thoughts sufficiently to summon them. Though they could appear of their own will, they might be no less muddled than he was.
Rokuta dug his fingernails into the gaps between the stones and slowly made his way down the hallway and turned to the right.
Kouya entered the room accompanied by twenty men. “Secretary, I have arrived with the additional men you requested.”
Atsuyu turned to him, a grim expression on his face. “Thank you.”
His countenance was haggard. The Imperial Army bivouacked on the far shore of the Rokusui had reached 31,000. On top of that, voices of discontent and criticism were being heard not only in the city but within the palace walls. As there was no telling when those words might turn into actions, his detail was being supplemented with troops from the rapid deployment forces.
“I’ve assembled the most adept soldiers in the corps. There is no love lost among them for the emperor. Their fealty to the secretary is unquestioned.”
Kouya glanced at them as he spoke. The fact was, he didn’t know them well enough to trust them unconditionally. In any event, he would stick close to the secretary. His and the youma’s presence would deter anything bad from happening.
Atsuyu nodded. As he scanned the soldiers kneeling there, another messeger rushed into the room.
The flustered messenger forgot to kneel and simply shouted out, “The Taiho is gone!”
“He’s what?” Atsuyu jumped to his feet.
The deputy minister you assigned to look after him must have let him escape.”
Behind the messenger, a retainer appeared dragging in the aforementioned woman.
“Find him,” Atsuyu commanded in a low growl.
Kouya whirled around. “Search for the Taiho. Be sure to treat him with kid gloves. Return him here with all due deference.”
The new recruits behind him nodded in unison and ran off with the messenger. The deputy minister was left alone in the middle of the room. Atsuyu turned his attention to her.
“Why would you do something like that?”
She looked back at him, a bitter reproach in her eyes. “That is a question I wish to ask you. Why are you breaching the levees?”
Atsuyu let out an exasperated sigh. “That is—” He rubbed his temples. “What do you people expect me to do?” With a shake of his head, he addressed her again. “This is our only chance of prevailing. Or are you telling me that I’ve already lost?”
The deputy minister glared back at him and didn’t budge an inch. “So you will raise your banners over the banks of the Rokusui after dragging them through the mud?”
“Didn’t you rise up in revolt for the good of the people? How is inundating Shin’eki in accordance with the Way?”
“What else can we do at this point?”
“Surrender. It has become abundantly clear that you have taken this emperor far too lightly.”
Atsuyu sighed again and glanced at Kouya. “Kouya, take her with you.”