13-3 A shadow approached the woods. “Your Highness,” said Keiki, recognizing her in the cold and desolate twilight.
“Sorry about that,” said Youko.
“What happened? The word was, you would be leaving the city sooner than later.” Keiki pushed through the undergrowth as they climbed the slope. He abruptly stopped and grimaced. “You have a bad scent about you. I am not referring to you, personally.”
“You can smell that? Sorry. I had Hankyo bear the victims away from the square.”
Keiki sighed. Hankyo had come to the inn, said that he was to leave the city, and then guided him here. Keiki shrank back from the smell of blood. “So a youma appears in the city of Hokkaku.”
He glanced at her and found that she was scowling at him. A wry smile came to her face. “I was helping hurt people. Don’t give me that look.”
“Then I shall come to my conclusions after being informed of the details.”
Youko sat down and again smiled a deeply ironic smile.
They’d taken an inn in Hokkaku and stayed there for three days. There, too, Keiki noted the smell of death. With no other town nearby, they had to stay in Hokkaku. Youko strolled around the strange city. The hard toil of the citizenry built these wall, and all to suit the selfish needs of Gahou, province lord of Wa Province.
The better way would be to build the walls as big as possible, at the reach of the city limits, and then build the city small and let it grow over the years. Built it right and the people will come for protection from robbers and highwaymen. But Gahou built no bigger than he had to at any one time, and added the rest to the money he collected in tolls.
The city was densely populated, Gahou having shut most of the population out of Meikaku. The taxes were so steep in Meikaku that only the rich and mighty could afford to live there. People and commerce had been chased out, enlarging Hokkaku and Toukaku to an alarming degree. With travelers and their belongings, the streams of refugees, the cities were cramped. And all because of Gahou and his lousy walls. The peasants who lived in the countryside around Meikaku didn’t even have time to farm.
“That’s why at least four of them were being executed. They fled the forced labor gangs to get the crops in. They’re the ones I had Hankyo help.”
“Oh,” Keiki muttered.
Youko laughed to herself. “A girl threw a stone at the executioner. I helped her escape but the soldiers came after us. I guess my hair kind of stands out, huh? Getting back to Hokkaku looked difficult so I had you brought here. Sorry for the trouble.”
Keiki let out a breath. “I do wish Your Highness would act with more prudence.”
“My bad.” Youko propped her elbows on her knees. From the slope of the hill, Meikaku was visible in the distance. “I didn’t know people in Kei were executed by crucifixion.”
“They’re crucified in Wa Province.”
Keiki looked at her, speechless.
“There are lots of things like that going on in this kingdom that you and I know nothing about.”
Like a tax of thirty percent even in the Dutchy of Yellow, inhuman methods of punishment, corrupt officials like Gahou and Shoukou. Two months after ascending to the throne, the wizards of the earth had presented themselves at court. Gahou had surely been among them, and Shoukou as well.
“They all fell at my feet and kowtowed. But that only served to hide their scorn. What a stupid empress, they must have all thought.”
“I need civil servants I can trust.”
Right now, in truth, she needed allies more. It hadn’t occurred to her when they were toppling the pretender. That’s because she had En by her side—the personal support of the Imperial En and six divisions of the En Imperial Army, commanded by impeccably disciplined staff officers and generals. Youko didn’t have to order anybody around. After rescuing Keiki from the clutches of the pretender, the ministers and province lords who had conspired with her one by one were brought into line. It was clear to her now that they had fallen before the authority of the throne and the might of En.
“What kind of person is Enho?”
“Enho?” Keiki answered, with a puzzled expression. “He’s a man who knows much about the way things work. He has taught a great many people.”
“Maybe I should invite him to the Imperial Court.”
Keiki said neither aye nor nay to that proposition. “When it comes to rousing the bureaucracy to action, rather than simply following their lead, Your Highness must make her own decisions. That is the first priority.”
“That I intend to do.”
Keiki sighed. “There are those at court who battle for power. In order to drag down an opposing faction, they will fabricate crimes and make accusations.”
Youko suddenly raised her head. “Who are we talking about?”
Keiki didn’t answer.
“What are you hiding?”
“Nothing. If Your Highness cannot confirm it for herself, she is unlikely to believe it. That is all I have to say about the matter. I only ask that you think it over.”
“You mean, Koukan?” The previous marquis of Baku Province. She’d dismissed him, though Keiki had stubbornly remained opposed.
Keiki raised his eyebrows. “I was not referring to anyone in particular. If Koukan is the first name that springs to mind, then perhaps his fate is weighing on Your Highness’s mind.”
Youko took a soft breath. “Well, that’s something I wouldn’t expect a kirin like you to say.”
“It is the stubbornness of my lord that drives me to such things.”
Youko got to her feet, grinning. “We’d better hurry or the gates are going to close. Let’s go.”
Youko brushed off the dead grass and glanced again toward Meikaku. “I understand conditions in Meikaku. I like to go back to Kokei by means of Takuhou. You don’t want to be away from Gyouten much longer, do you?”
Keiki nodded, looking up at her with a concerned expression. “And Your Highness?”
“Yeah, I know. I’ll be back as soon as possible. But the one thing I have learned living in the real world is that I don’t understand it at all.”
Youko smiled at the scowling Keiki. “I’ll return after I’ve learned everything inside and out. I can’t believe I’m saying this myself, but I don’t know when I’ll return to Gyouten. That’s how much I’ve figured out I didn’t know.”
“Indeed,” said Keiki.
“I’m pretty sure I’ll know for myself when enough is enough. I don’t regret it. Coming down to the real world to live like this was absolutely necessary.”
“So please wait until I’ve come to a conclusion. I don’t think it will take that long.”
Keiki didn’t answer, but only bowed deeply.