"It's been done master," said the low rumbling voice from within the shadows.
Yoko simply nodded without lifting her head. "Good job Hankyo." She dropped the last book onto the finished pile and sat back to enjoy her uncharacteristically empty table. Behind her, the moon hung high and bright like a ball of burning silver, unclouded by the wisps of clouds. Yoko tapped her chin absentmindedly, lost in her thoughts until the rustling of cloth and soft clang of sword broke her from it.
"Come in," she said before even waiting for the knock.
Her two most trusted ministers entered with an anxious look on their face. Both armed as though they had expected some sort of disturbance. Yoko could hardly blame them for being worried. All she had done was tell Hankyo to tell them to come to her study immediately and without anyone knowing.
"It sounded urgent." Kantai's statement lingered an unspoken question. His eyes wandered across her room: the clean table, the small bag by the side of table. "Are you leaving?"
"If you are, then let us accompany you."
Holding her hand up to stop the influx of questions, Yoko looked at them dispassionately. "Both of you must stay. There is a situation that I must investigate. No one must know that I am not here."
She held her hand up again to stem their objections.
"Koshou, it is imperative that you pretend that I am here. Say whatever you wish for the reason of my absence. Say I'm sick or do not wish to see anyone. I don't care. No one must know that I am not here."
She turned to Kantai. It was a pity that she could not bring him along. It would be a great relief to know that she did not have to watch over her back constantly. Human bodyguards were less suspicious than shirei bodyguards. Should she be attacked for any reason, Hankyo pouncing onto the assailant would be very conspicuous. Kantai glared back with a determined look in his eye. He was obviously not going to take no for an answer
"Your majesty, at least let me come along. Koushou's disappearance would be very obvious but a general's disappearance would not be."
"Kantai, be prepared to be summoned. Make sure you are alone every day at least an hour before moonrise. I will send word through Hankyo and I do not want anyone to learn of my instructions. For that reason, you must stay."
She turned to look at the moon. She had not dismissed them. "Hankyo?"
"The Chosai is approaching," came the monotonous voice from the shadows.
It was within moments that the trio heard the soft padded steps on the thick carpet. Koukan smiled as he entered the room, unfazed by message or by the questioning looks of Koshou and Kantai. That was something Yoko liked about Koukan. Always calm and collected, he gave off the impression that he was always prepared.
"As I have expected your majesty, you are leaving tonight?" The edges of his mouth turned to form a small but stiff smile. Koukan was not happy despite his cheerful tone. They had gone through this argument countless times. He knew she was not going to change her mind.
She nodded giving him a wry smile.
"Very well." There was a note of resignation as Koukan spoke. "Then if you'll let me, there is a man in Gyouten. If you won't accept Koshou or Kantai, then at least let this man protect you."
He handed Yoko a small card and a small bag of coins. On it written simply was the name of a person, an emblem and an inn. "I have also prepared you a kijuu, something that would not attract attention."
"Thank you Koukan."
She pulled up her cloak. By now the moon had already sunk low just onto the horizon. The Cloud sea seemed ablaze with the pale light of the moon. Gaishi bowed as she strode through. He had been expecting her ever since Koukan had ordered him to ready the Rokushoku kijuu. Kantai, Koshou and Koukan watched her as she leapt onto the kijuu.
"What is he called?" She pointed at the kijuu.
"Houto, your majesty."
"Burning Winter huh." She patted the white kijuu. It was a fitting name. Red mane and white coat, it would seem like the snow was burning when it flew. Turning it around, it leapt off as she gave them one last glance.
There was no telling how soon she would return. If everything went well, then perhaps she would be back to that stifling court in a matter of days. Chances of that happening were close to zero. That was something the four of them knew.
As they watched her soar into the dark sky, her silhouette shrinking into the distance, a lonely feeling overcame them.
Koshou turned to the two of them. "So errr- Who's going to tell the Taiho?"
It was the beginning of another autumn. The cool mist drifted in from the outskirts of Gyouten, settling onto the steel-coloured roofs. The shutters of most buildings were still open though the weather has started to cool. But they probably were not closed at night until winter had finally to settle for winters in Kei were chilly at best. Yoko landed at the back of one of the buildings just at the sun had begun to peak above the horizon and chase the night away. A pale orange had started a slow spread through the now navy blue sky. There was a low buzz of animals waking and people moving about, readying to start their day.
As compared to the start of her reign, the buildings were better maintained now. There was budding signs of prosperity in them as she strolled through Gyouten. New signs, fresh paint, clean doors and even expensive silk hung on some of these buildings. Yoko could not help but be cheered by these signs.
It was only until she finally stopped in front of the Jade Wine Inn that the burdens of being a king returned. The inn was a modest building. The pillars and doors were well-worn but well maintained. The steps were smooth from use with a simple wooden sign for its name. Plain lanterns with a simple flower painted on it hung on both sides. Neither too expensive nor too shabby to be eye-catching, it was just plain enough for the eye to glaze by without noticing much. Yoko could not help but wonder if it was on purpose for it seemed almost like a calculative plainness. Had she not sent Hankyo to look for it, she may have just as well walked right by it without noticing it.
A young boy was sweeping the steps when she stopped in front of it. Like the inn, he was modestly dressed, a plain green hoh and matching brown pants. He paused in his motions to look up upon noticing Yoko. Before leaving she had taken pains to dye her hair, it was unlikely anyone would notice her just based on her hair colour.
"May I help you?" he called out.
"I was told to find a man called Satouku here."
Quickly placing his broom by the pillar, he motioned towards the door. "This way please."
The building must have been bigger than what it looked for Yoko followed the boy through a bewildering amount of twist and turns. Finally, the boy ushered Yoko into a room before closing the door behind her. Yoko spun around. For just a moment, fear seized her heart. Had she been locked in? She could feel a cold slither down her spine. Joyu had become nervous in her moment of panic. No, Koukan would not have lead her to a trap. She forced herself to breathe normally as she logically thought it through. He knew that such things would be nothing for the shirei to break her out of it. It would have been an utter waste of effort and time.
She sighed and sat down, taking her time to examine the room. A single lantern lit the windowless room. It was sparsely furnished, plain and simple just like its exterior: a single bed, a single table and two chairs. Yoko was beginning to think that the owner of the inn was just merely frugal. The plainness must not have been calculated as she had earlier believed. Her hand fell onto the bed sheets. It was smooth like silk. Taking the lantern, she bent down to look at them. The bed sheets were plain, but they were silk of the highest quality. This was the kind of silk Yoko saw in the palace. The plainest had truly been deceptive.
Just as Yoko mused over her new knowledge, the door swung open. The man or rather the boy was barely a man. Looking about seventeen or eighteen, his piercing grey eyes scrutinized Yoko as she did the same for him. Averagely built, he was not too muscular to stand out nor too frail looking to be under-estimated. Calculated just like the furnishings of the room were.
"I heard you were looking for Satouku," he finally said, closing the door behind him. "This room is safe to speak."
Safe to speak? Yoko considered that sentence. Where had Koukan sent her to?
"I was sent by Koukan." She placed the small card by the lantern. The boy frowned.
"How can I help you?"
"What is this place?"
The boy looked at her indignantly. "Why have you come here if you do not know what this place is?"
"Koukan insisted that I'd come here. He said that I'd have no one else, then at least let this man be my bodyguard." She tapped the card.
The cloud on the boy's face cleared in an instant after hearing her words.
"I see. In that case tell me what the situation is."
"This is a delicate issue. I must know what this place is first," Yoko insisted.
"This is the department of that deals with things that cannot be named. We were originally under the last king and since the last three queens failed miserably, we have faded further into the unknown." He chuckled humourlessly. "We were originally a secret department to start with. Now only a few ministers know us."
"Something like a secret service, I guess," she muttered. Koukan had sent her to find her secret service and make use of it. She smiled inwardly at that thought.
"So you must be sennin."
The boy gazed at her thoughtfully. "I do not believe this has anything to do with your situation."
She smiled ever so slightly. "I do not believe it does. I just could not help but being curious. Why did Koukan send me to you?"
Then without warning, she leapt forward. Her hands were empty, but she was not unarmed. Yoko could feel Joyu leap into motion, her arms swinging effortlessly to counter the boy's moves. She jumped into the air, dodging his attempt to swipe her legs out and landed in a roll.
They stood facing each other. Despite the short exchange, they were both gasping. Moves quick and swift in a tiny enclosed area was not an easy feat.
"I see." Yoko said. She sat down on the bed. "There is a situation at Bu Province. If it is not resolved in time, this may end up in a bloody civil war and I wish to avoid that. Without going into specifics, there is a group of instigators there and they must be dealt with."
He nodded. "I will come with you. Jinhaku's my name. "
"I'm Youshi." They bowed. "If you don't mind, I'd like to leave at noon," she added off-handily.
Jinhaku nodded and motioned at the bed. "Rest, I'll wake you before then." He turned and left.
In the cool darkness of the windowless room, Yoko drifted off into an uneasy sleep.