"Keiki, Keiki-" she shook him gently, her hand getting tangled in his silvery gold hair. "Oh sorry!"
Keiki sighed as he got up slowly, reaching to untangle his hair from her hands, his large hand enveloping her small cold hands as he tugged it from her ring. "Why are your hands so cold, your majesty?" He wrapped his hands over hers, blowing into them to warm them up.
"Keiki-" she turned away, her face faintly red.
"Are you having a fever? Your face is red." He reached over to check her temperature. "I'll summon the imperial doctor."
"No- it's fine." She grabbed his hoh as he leapt from the bed to summon the maids. "Look-"
Yoko pointed at the window. The sun had barely risen. Much of the sky was still in darkness, save for the streak of red that looked like a phoenix. Thick flakes of snow fell silently into the garden. He frowned as he stared out of the window.
"I do not see what I'm supposed to see."
She sighed. "It's snowing!"
"I see that. It is not rare for it to snow in mid-winter for Kei. I believe we are well-prepared for possible snow. Does your majesty foresee any issues?"
She sighed again. She seemed to be sighing quite often of the late. "Isn't it pretty? It's the first snow of the year."
"I… see-" he said, puzzled over her excitement over snow.
She heaved a large sigh, disgruntled at his lack of reaction. He would not remember, but it was snowing on the day that she finally reclaimed the throne. She watched it snow from her blood-stained throne and saw Keiki watching her.
"It's fine." She waved his apology away. "I declare a snow day for every province's first day of snow of the season. That's all." She turned and left.
"Your majesty, what's a snow day?"
"It's a day where everything gets cancelled. People get to stay at home and not need to go to work or school today."
She smiled at him. A gentle smile, untainted by any of the sadness that she seemed to carry around lately. Nevertheless, it was one of her rare smiles and Keiki treasured it.
"Keiki," a pair of small hands shook him awake. A memory. It must be the lack of power that made him sleep more. Keiki shook his head, trying to clear the sleep from his head. That was when he heard the screaming and then when it died, all that echoed was the quiet sobbing.
"That's the royal scribe, Shoukei. What is she doing here?" Keiki could not make out what the male voice replied her but they must have both been here to save Yoko. Her majesty must be in this very building. A sense of hope and despair filled his body. If her majesty had been here the whole time, then why had he not sensed her? Not to mention that if what the man had said was right and her majesty did know about En Taiho and him here, why had she not come for them? Keiki struggled with the fear that rose in him as he thought about it. He had half risen when Rokuta grabbed him.
"Wait," Rokuta said. "She was screaming for En-ou, that means Shouryu is here."
Keiki looked at the small kirin. He had forgotten that Rokuta had been jailed with him. "Based on their conversation, I do not believe that they know we are here," his voice rapidly regaining the composure that he was famous for. It would not be good for anyone was to see a kirin panicking. Kirins were the embodiment of the heaven's will. They should always be calm and poised. That was what Keiki was taught.
Rokuta frowned at Keiki's statement. "I had the theory that they were using us as blackmail, but now I don't think that we are even in the picture. I mean. That girl, she said save the queen. That means there's something wrong with Yoko. Are we insurance?"
Rokuta turned to the bars, gripping them, he hollered as loudly as he could, "HEYYYYYYYYYYYYYY! CAN YOU HEAR ME?"
Shouryu covered the boy with his cloak. He knew Rankei from going in and out of Kinpa palace. Yoko had spoken to him about Rankei. She had mentioned him in the passing on how he was going through a rebellious phase, but Shouryu last expected Rankei to fall from the sky in the middle of the night. Not to mention that there was a high chance of war back at the Gyouten. Rankei was a highly intelligent boy. He knew that from Tai-ou and Yoko. He would have made his way back to the palace if he was not already there in this kind of situation.
"You didn't have to literally drop help from the sky," he muttered.
Shouryu grunted with irritation. Yet again it felt like the heaven was leading him round in circles; it had been a total coincidence that he had noticed the unusual amount of tokis that were leaving his kingdom. Shouryu had not been able to mention it because mentioning where he got his source from meant that he would have to tell someone that he had been sweeping some floor in a ratty casino in his own country. Hakutaku, or rather none of his ministers were going to give him a break once they did. Instead he decided that he would monitor it personally and find out what was going on. Once he had found out about Yoko leaving the palace to go to Bu Province, he knew he had to come. Someone was taking it out from his country to Kei. Who knows what else the person or organization could do. Now at a loss on what his next move was, heaven decided to move another chess piece. He would not ignore it or rather, Shouryu could not ignore it. After meeting Kouya and hearing the story about Kouya and Rokuta, Shouryu solemnly swore never to ignore obvious direction.
'In that case, Seikyou must be another chess piece. A small detail huh.' He furrowed his eyebrows. He could try to enter the building again and have Rankei break in to kidnap Yoko. That seemed like the only plan he had. Shouryu was starting to feeling the weariness beat down on him. Even kings could be tired. He looked up, taking in the wide expanse of dark sky above him.
"En-ou," came a deep voice from beneath his feet.
Startled, he took an involuntary step back. Shouryu had resigned himself to completing the impossible task of saving Yoko by himself before Heaven decided to drop Rankei onto him and now a shirei? Clearly Heaven believed he needed a lot of help. The question of whether he should waste three days on going to Mt Hou and asking if he was within his heaven's mandate to assist Yoko flickered through his mind. With things the way they are now, Shouryu wasn't sure if he had the luxury of wasting three days. This situation felt awfully familiar. Was it when that Kou-ou tried to kill Yoko? Where was Rokuta when he needed him? His pesky kirin always appeared at inappropriate times but rarely the times he needed the kirin. Shouryu bit back another unhappy mutter as he turned back to the shirei. Rokuta's shirei always called him 'your majesty' so clearly this was not Rokuta's. Plus Shouryu didn't recognize the voice, definitely not Rokuta's.
"Who are you?"
"I am Hankyo, Kei taiho's shirei. I've come bearing a message from her majesty."
"A message?" Shouryu could scarcely believe his ears. Upon seeing the state of Yoko when she left with that Jinhaku, Shouryu did not believe that she was capable of doing anything beyond that crazy man's commands. There was hope! A fire sang in his heart as he began making plans around that idea. "What message is it?" Shouryu asked, almost laughing in glee.
"I am to tell you what happened."
What would telling me help her?
"Following a lead, her majesty entered the building to save the man called Jinhaku. There many of the ministers recognized her and she was led into staying in the building while trying to find the man. However it seemed that something she ate or drank had robbed her of her ability react. The man, Jinhaku entered the room and placed a red string around her forehead and sealed it with a bead. From that moment onwards, her majesty had stopped responding to us. Due to her majesty's orders that unless she was in immediate danger, we are not allowed to interfere; we have not been able to do anything." A tone sounding awfully like guilt crept into the cold shirei's voice.
"Is it possible for you to remove the red string?"
"No. Her orders forbid us from assisting her unless she is in immediate danger."
If it's the red string with the bead, it must be the same one that Kouya had placed around Rokuta's head. Shouryu was told about it much after the rebellion in Gen Province. Chances is that it was placed around someone else's head. The possibility of killing someone by removing it was there.
"Would you be able to show me the way to her room?"
That was a start.
"STOP! THE QUEEN WILL SEE NO ONE," Koshou hollered. He pushed back the minister, pulling his large spear into an aggressive stance. With the tension rising, more and more ministers were beginning to disregard the fact that they were not even supposed to be in the inner palace. They were becoming quite adamant on seeing the queen in fact that some resorted to trying to sneak in through her window. The other three retainers shifted uneasily. Koshou could not fault them for being nervous as well and unlike the milling ministers in front of him, they knew that the queen was not there.
"The queen is currently conferring with Daishiba and Sankou. I understand your anxiety, but you better get the hell out of here before the queen sees you and throws you into jail." Jerking a thumb to the minister that he had pushed back, he said to the soldier beside him, "send him to jail for a day and make him remember that NONE OF YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE IN THE INNER PALACE."
Koshou's loud voice carried through the inner palace. The ministers quickly scrambled out of the inner palace and for now, gardens were silent again.
"Very good, Daiboku," Enho said.
Koshou turned and bowed as deeply as Yoko's edict allowed him to. "Taishi."
"Don't worry about it. There weren't many options to choose from. I don't think they'll be back soon, though if her majesty does not return soon, I believe they will find out the truth."
"Is there anything specific you would like me to say when that comes?"
"Perhaps something along the lines that her majesty has left to talk to the rebellion leader. Yes, that would be good."
Rankei suppressed the urge to shout in frustration at their slow pace through the dark corridors. It was essential and Rankei could not fault En-ou for being careful.
"This way," the voice from the shadows said quietly as they came to a crossroad. Rankei had been in this building many times as it was one of the primary meeting spots for her and many other ministers. He was not proud to be one of the rebellion leaders though En-ou and Yoko did not know yet, he knew he'd get more than another of Yoko's lectures for doing such a thing. He dreaded it, but he hoped that at least he would have been able to accomplish what he had set out to do.
The corridor was so silent that Rankei could hear the leather in his shoes creak. Judging by the number of people in the banquet hall and the almost empty halls, even the guards must be down there celebrating.
'Celebrating the easy victory they're going to have.' Rankei thought as a chill ran down his spine. He shuddered at the horror of what was going horribly wrong. 'I still can fix this,' he paused at that thought before adding belatedly, 'I hope..'
Hankyo rose and stood outside a door. Despite the blank face that he held, the shirei gave an impression of impatience as he watched them walked towards the door. Shouryu drew his sword as he burst into the room.
It was empty.
Shouryu had expected it to be empty. Not because the guards were downstairs drinking gaily, but because he had expected that the shirei had taken anyone who could pose a threat down for them. Yoko lay on the bed, fast asleep. That surprised him a little. Yoko had always been an insomniac for the last two decades he had known her.
"Yoko!" he whispered furiously, shaking her. She did not even rouse.
A small detail.
Shouryu carried her to the window where the thin silver moon shone into the room. She was so light, lighter than he remembered her to be, not that he carried her many times.
"Why did they leave so many hairpieces on when she's going to sleep?" he muttered. 'Is it the red thread?'
He hesitated. What if there was something else connected to the same red thread? Then just as he mustered the courage to break the red thread, the thread tightened around her head. It seemed to attempt to slice her head into half, but due to Yoko's divinity, it merely gave a rather deep cut around her head. Yoko convulsed, her eyelids moving rapidly as though trying to open but unable to. Blood poured from her head, splattering down Shouryu's grimy robes. Shouryu held her, wrapping his torn sleeve around her head.
"Get a cloth!"
Rankei leapt for the blanket, tearing into rollable strips as he ran back to Shouryu.
"It's not stopping!" Rankei cried out. It looked so painful. "Why isn't she waking?! Anyone would have been woken if they were injured so badly!"
"Not if I commanded her to sleep," a wry voice replied from behind them.
The duo had been so engrossed in stopping her bleeding that they had not noticed Jinhaku and a small group of soldiers enter.
"Rankei." The man greeted him. "What are you doing here? I thought you were supposed to lead the armies to Kinpa Palace. But I guess if your beloved mistress has defected, then it would have been the same for you." He smiled. "Get them!"
Rokuta slumped against the bars, weary from shouting. No matter how much he yelled, they did not seem to give an indication that they heard him. It was true after all that a kirin's senses were much sharper than any human or beast out there. If he could barely hear them, then they must be really far from them. Rokuta turned to look at Keiki. Judging by the amount of time he had spent with the red thread around his head several hundred decades ago at Ganboku, both Keiki and him must be hitting their limit.
If faces could go any whiter than white itself, then En Taiho's face would be a perfect example of such. Kirins were already known to have a pale complexion, but now his face was stark of any colour except the brilliant gold that lost much of its luster and hung limply down his face. Keiki was surprised that Enki could even energy to shout let alone a sarcastic nickname. Looking up Keiki saw Rokuta approach him.
"En Taiho, what are you doing?" Keiki tried to pull back, only to find himself too exhausted to even do that.
Without replying, Rokuta slid his finger under Keiki's and his red thread and pulled it. The loud sound of the thread snapping echoed in the cell. The threads unraveled as they fell onto the ground. A surge of energy rushed through him, tingling right down to his fingers. His forehead feeling rather warm as the flood of energy gushing through them seemed to crackle in audibly in the air.
"What have you done?" Keiki stared at Rokuta. He collapsed onto the ground. Though energy surged through him, he could feel the pain from the link that bound him with her majesty. "Your- majesty-" he called weakly.
Rokuta called loudly. "Rikaku."
The grey shirei rose from the shadows. "Present."
"Get us out of here."
The shirei smashed itself against the celling, rubble was fell like rain as it used its great jaws and paws to dig through the wall. Rokuta half dragged, half carried Keiki to a corner where it was safe.
"I'm going to find Shouryu, will you be alright?"
Keiki looked at Rokuta. "Her majesty is in grave trouble."
Rokuta pulled Keiki's arm, pushing back his sleeve as he did. Pale but empty. There were no splotches of black that usually indicated shitsudou. He breathed a sigh of relief. Rokuta wasn't sure what on earth was going on Kei but seeing how he and Keiki had been kidnapped for the longest time, it didn't seem good.
He heard the patter of feet that was running towards their cell. Glancing at his shirei, it did not seem that Rikaku would be able to break the wall that quickly. The walls in the dungeons were built too stoutly. Was there no way of getting through it quickly?
"Keiki! Hurry! Your youwa!" Rokuta pointed at the ceiling. "Get him to smash through it." A shirei that could smash its entire weight on it would be better than a flying shirei in this case.
"Jyuusaku." Keiki commanded. The shirei sprang into action without a further word, throwing its entire weight into the ceiling. The shouhi hurried away from the hole it had dug as the youwa approached. Beneath Rikaku's jaws and paws and Jyuusaku's hard head and strong legs, the ceiling broke a gap large enough for both kirins to squeeze through.
"Keiki! Hurry!" Rokuta shifted. He was gone even before his clothes fell to the ground. Not far behind, he could hear the guards yelling in dismay and Keiki right behind.
Rishou surged forward, his quick feet rapidly covering the distance between him and Rankei. He liked Rankei. Rankei was a man who never minced his words if he felt the person deserved it. He was never afraid to speak up if he felt indignant. Rankei was a man truly devoted to their cause. Why had he defected along with her? Had he always been devoted because she was devoted? Rishou had not liked her very much, especially when he saw her in Tougoku. She was a double agent. Double agents could never be trusted, particularly agents like her who hid their true face too well. But now was not the time to contemplate on reasons. Stepping lightly to the right, Rishou felt Rankei's blade narrowly miss his cheek. Rankei never minced his words and never held back.
Rankei did not pause as his sword missed; he had expected that from Rishou. Dropping to the ground, he kicked Rishou's feet out. Rishou fell; quickly rolling into a ball, he sprung away lightly. He pulled his sword to chin and charged at Rankei. Just at the last moment, he spun around. His elbow slamming into Rankei's stomach, he leapt back. Rankei winced, taking several involuntary steps. He could hear the fight behind him. From the corner of his eye, he could see En-ou take down several men without breaking a sweat.
'Always keep your cool, that is the most important.'
Rankei could almost hear Tai-ou say his favourite line. He let himself take a deep breath. Letting Rishou's sword slide down his, he hit it with just enough force to send it spinning. He jumped forward, stepping onto his foot before kicking Rishou in the shoulder. Rishou fell to the ground. He grabbed his shoulder as he scowled at Rankei.
"Good. You are as good as Tai-ou said you were," Shouryu said. Finally sparing a glance, he realized the reason why Shouryu was speaking so carefree was due to the two large shirei standing over Yoko.
"Is she okay?"
"I've just defended myself," Shouryu declared before Jinhaku could open his mouth. "In the eyes of the heaven, I have done nothing wrong. But you…" Shouryu trailed into silence, a sardonic smile crept onto his face. "Taking the queen, brainwashing her, injuring her. What else could you do to go against the will of heaven?"
Perhaps it was the light for for a moment, Jinhaku's face seemed to pale at Shouryu's words. "A lot of other things. Kei-ou! Kill this man!"