The sun was rising after another sleepless night for Koshou. After the ministers had found out about her, he found it pointless to keep up pretences of guarding the inner palace. Koshou and several of the inner palace guards had taken to guarding the forbidden gate instead. It did not really matter if he did. The barracks were so highly strung that he could probably cut the tension with a knife. With no orders except to be ready to move out any time, the King's army was divided on how to spend their time effectively. There were the really seasoned ones that lounged around making fart jokes and eating like it was their last meals and the newly recruited from other divisions that spent their time training or being really intense. Personally, Koshou could not understand why they would waste their energy training if they were going to move out any time, would it not deplete their energy levels? It was one of the small inner jokes that Koshou and his subordinates shared.
"Over there," Toshou pointed.
Just above the horizon was a speck of white. The blob grew bigger and on its edges was a trim of brilliant red.
"Is that-" Toshou started.
"MOVE ASIDE!" Koshou bellowed, pushing Toshou out of range just in time.
A white object with shades of pale yellow mixed with a smudge of red streaked past. Koshou caught Kaiko's eye and immediately recognizing the limpness of Yoko and her red and white robe, he hollered, "FETCH THE ROYAL PHYSICIAN!"
"Was that the kirin?" Koshou could hear the soldiers muttering.
"Was the red streak was her majesty?"
He hurried after them. A small crowd had gathered to see what the shouting was about. Koshou paused in his urgency, quickly summarizing all the possibilities of what might have happened. He had not been promoted to daiboku for no reason. Though he was not as good as Sekki in precipitating possible situations, he had a keen eye, clear head and the voice that commanded people's attention. He pointed at the three lieutenants. "You and you, gather your platoon and follow me. You, gather your platoon and guard the forbidden gate." Satisfied that his orders being followed in an extremely efficient manner, Koshou returned to chasing after Keiki.
Just as he bounded into the inner palace, he could hear the hurried pounding of feet behind him. One of the soldiers carried the royal physician while the other carried his equipment were hurrying down. Koshou leapt out of the way as they hurried past him. Following a while behind was the physicians assistants who had not been as important to be carried by the soldiers in their hurry to reach the inner palace quicker.
The royal physician was already bending over Yoko when he skidded into the room. "Toshou! Assist Kei Taiho to his room to recover!" Koshou barked. Clearly there was no one who was calm enough to make the decisions around now that Kantai was missing. Koshou could catch bits of the conversation as the royal physician spoke with Koukan.
"Will she be okay?"
"The bleeding is not stopping and the Hekisoujo is missing. It is strange that she is not waking."
They paused startled by Hankyo's appearance. The fact that the shirei was offering information unbidden worried Koshou even more.
"Her majesty was drugged. She will not wake up," Hankyo said quietly, the top of his head and his eye peered at the royal physician.
"Drugged by what?"
"I do not know." The shirei sunk back into the shadows before they could question him further. A dark silence fell over them. Drugged, bleeding and unable to stop it, Koshou swallowed thickly. Koukan gripped the side table, his knuckles turning white as he stood there staring down on Yoko.
One of Yoko's handmaidens tugged on Koshou's sleeve urgently. Barely registering what she was saying, he turned to where she pointed. Rokuta stood at the doorway. His face was pale from the stench of blood but there was a look of impatience on his face.
"Hoi! Are you listening?!" He called out exasperated to them.
"En- … Taiho?" Koukan broke from his trance.
Rokuta covered his nose, his eyebrows furrowed as he glanced at Yoko. "Try stopping the bleeding with the Kaikyaku method. They use thread to stitch the together."
"How barbaric!" The royal physician yelled. "Do you think her majesty is some piece of cloth!?"
"There's no other way is there? At least it works!" Rokuta pulled up his shirt to expose his belly. They could see a beige centipede-like scar running down it. He turned, helped by one of the handmaidens, he returned to his room, far from the stench of blood.
The handmaidens handed over thread to the royal physician. His hand trembled as he neared the wound. Tremble would be an understatement, his hands shook viciously. Gyokuyo snatched it out of his hands, pushing the royal physician away.
"Men!" She muttered. She gulped thickly as she picked the cool needle. Belying her fear with her steady hands, she began stitching. They were neat and fine. "Well?" Gyokuyo turned to the royal physician, making space for him. She hid her hands in the folds of her dress as she stood. Her hands now quivering, released from its need to be calm.
"A-Ah! Y-Yes." He moved over, placing the smelly herbal paste over the wound and bandaging it deftly. This time blood did not seep through it and they breathed a sigh of relief, for now.
"What about the drug?" Koukan asked. "What kind of drug do you think is able to keep someone under even with so much pain?"
The royal physician listed a few herbs. "I'll make a medicine to counteract a few of those and hopefully it hits one of those." He was not confident at all. No one was confident in anything at all now.
"What is the status?" Shoukei asked as she marched into the room.
The ministers turned to look at her. "What are you doing here? I thought you defected."
She sat down on the throne chair that was clearly meant for the master of the house. "It was that Jinhaku, not me that defected." She smiled, catching the eye of one of the ministers. "Well? What is the status?"
"The army is assembled and ready to move into Ei."
"Who are the commanding officers?" She tapped her fingers impatiently, watching them exchange perplexed looks. Clearly, this was all the dissident officers. There was not an ounce of soldier in them. That was a good sign. She turned to Rankei and Youtashi.
"Rankei take command of the Left army. Youtashi, lead the right army-"
"I apologize Shoukei," Youtashi said blandly, interrupting her orders. His eyes were apathetic much like his voice. He had been leaning insouciantly against the wall, watching the bickering unfold before him. He was charged to watch over Shoukei's safety and nothing more. A military man to the core, Youtashi followed the order to its last letter and nothing more unless it did not make sense. The whole situation did not make sense to him but it was not in his taste to desert an order. "I do not lead. Moreover I am charged to look after you, not to lead armies."
She pursed her lips. That certainly was going to be a problem. "Rankei, find someone who have the capacity to lead the left and right."
There was no need for her to elaborate. Rankei knew what would come next and carry out in that manner. Now all Shoukei could do was pray that Yoko would wake in time and still trust her.
It was two days of non-stop flying when Shouryu finally reached the Kinpa Palace. There was a bone deep exhaustion permeating through him but his exhaustion was probably nothing compared to the two shirei who had carried him for last few days. Being the Eternal King, Shouryu had not spent the two days in idle. He might not have the luxury to do anything but sit on the shirei but his mind was free and he did plenty of thinking. In the beginning his mind clamored in their disparate views on the situation. What could have tipped Shoukei and Rankei off? Were they the true masterminds? Where did Seikyou originally stand?
He did not regret killing the man even if it had not been his place to do so. Yoko was too soft for such stuff, frequently favouring exiles over executions. Perhaps it was the influence of the kirin. Yoko did have an abnormal dependence for Keiki's opinions even if it was not obvious. Shouryu had been down the road before before he had become king. He had ample time and opportunities to form the way he wanted to run his kingdom even before he met Rokuta. That was the difference between both of them. Yoko was a competent ruler. All kings had the potential to become a competent ruler. That was why the kirins had chosen them. However not all kings had trust, the opportunity and the guiding hand to bring them to their true capacity. He had not violated any Heaven's will outright, Shouryu had made certain of that. Seikyou was no longer considered a citizen of Kei and the man had attacked him. He had killed the man in self-defence. If the heaven was going to punish him for the thinly-veiled bypass, then he would have been punished a thousand times over. He would provide the guiding hand that Yoko clearly wanted. To guide but not to lead. There was a big difference in the words.
Though he had contemplated on the roles of Shoukei and Rankei. Their roles could be vastly different depending on the take of the situation. Shouryu considered himself an impeccable judge of character and Yoko was certainly adept at it herself. Their judgment on the two would not have strayed that far. Deciding to err on being optimistic, something that Shouryu had not done for a long time, he began to lay out possible plans for Yoko to consider when she awoke. She will awake. Shouryu had not made that painful detour to not have her awaken.
He clutched his bloodied arm. It had hurt when the youma had bitten him. Sanki had been quick to defeat the lowly youma before it had gotten further. The smell of blood did not help to ward off any other curious ones.
The shirei staggered to the front of the forbidden gate. There was at least a full battalion of soldiers guarding there.
'Had something happen?' flashed through Shouryu's mind. He had nothing on himself to prove that he was the real En-ou.
His brown eyes searching the crowd for a familiar face. Surely there was something who remembered him from his recently frequent trips. No such luck. He groaned as he slid off Sanki. His legs protested in weariness.
He would have to bear it a little longer.
"Rikaku, go find Rokuta and tell him I'm here and requires him to prove my legitimacy."
The shirei was off without a further word.
'Not too long, I hope.'
Rankei stared out at the army. His mind mentally ticking off those suitable for progression. It was a test. Everything was a test. A test that only the astute would have noticed it. Shoukei trusted Yoko to realize that as he did. He paused at the silhouette on the outskirts of the city. Kantai had definitely noticed it though belated.
"Do you have the list?" The silky voice broke his thoughts.
She had sidled up to him without him realizing or had he not really noticed because he knew it was she? Rankei shook his head in bewilderment.
"Was that a no to my question?" Shoukei asked, her eyebrow raised expectantly at him. She cast a glance at the army below them. There was an indiscernible look in her eyes when she turned back at him that belied the casual smile on her face. "Don't fail this."
Her quiet words were unneeded. Rankei knew exactly how bad things could go if it went south. He was trained by Tai-ou in the war aspects after all.
He scribbled the list down and passed it to her. "I'll call them out in a bit," he nodded as he spoke.
She shaded her eyes as the morning sun drifted into the twilight sky. "Is that Kantai?"
"I believe so."
"If he's here then who's leading?" Her voice had an apprehensive tone.
"Zoukyu, Gaishin and Danki if nothing else had been changed since I left."
"Is that his test as well?"
Though Rankei did not slump, his shoulders seemed to heave under his words. "I believe so." Everything hinged on his orders now. He leapt onto the kijyuu without a backward glance; soaring into the air with the armies following.
There was a muted silence probably partially from the falling snow as Shouryu stalked down the lavish hallways. The inner palace was always extravagant in any kingdom. The finely crafted white pillars seemed to stretch on interminably. Perhaps it only seemed so far when the only thing he had on his mind was to reach Yoko as quickly as possible. The other thoughts of pending doom, possibility of breaking heaven's will and even the pallid complexion on Rokuta had been evicted by the girl whose hair burned like fire and smiled so brilliantly that he thought he could be blinded. He did not mind his grimy state or the aching pain in his arm as he burst into the room without waiting for the handmaidens to announce him. Such politeness would have to wait when Yoko was awake and very much alive to snipe at him with her quiet husky voice. Not that he did bother about such decorum of late.
The residents in the room were barely startled from his entrance. His footsteps must have been loud enough for them to guess their guest. His gaze fell onto Yoko. No longer bleeding but still asleep. Small victories for them. Beckoning to the physician, he pulled out from his jacket a handful of grubby flowers. Yoko would recognize these if she were awake. There were few herbs that had made her hunt the yellow sea for. Blue and white tipped with prickly leaves. Those were the only description they had to go by the last time they searched for them.
"Grind the flowers and brew it with water."
The physician nodded, barrelling towards the door. Koukan had quickly deduced the nature of her sleep. She would wake soon, but not soon enough to order for the armies in order for a perfect defence. Ideas fought in his mind until the last one won. Koukan turned to Koshou. The residents in the room knew how this might play out.
"Wait," Shouryu called out. His hands grabbing onto Koshou's arm, leaving brown lines as his hand fell. He dismissed the servants leaving the three of them and the sleeping queen in the room. "Shoukei's the leader of the rebels."
"Shoukei? That's not right… Her majesty's trust in her is unshakable."
"No," Koukan interrupted. "If she is, then it changes a lot of things." He cupped his chin, hiding a smile behind his long fingers. His dark grey eyes were barely hiding the merriment that dance through it.
The room seemed to hold their breath as they waited for Koukan to explain. This, Koukan knew and took his time forming the reasoning and logic.
"I do not know for sure if this is the truth," he began. His words were slow with a contemplative tinge to it. "Roughly three years ago, Shoukei came to speak to me. She asked me if I knew Satouku. I had heard of them in the passing through Enho. Nothing substantial not until she produced a small card. It is a bit of long story to explain how she had come into possession with it, so I shall not talk about it. Satouku is an underground organization that serves the king. They answer to no one but the king and do not exist in any document. A shadow."
Shouryu nodded. He had such organizations in his kingdoms as well. There was a need for them even in times of peace.
"A shadow that the queen is not aware of due to the change of hands in the last few centuries. Since they do not exist and did not make themselves known when her majesty came to power, Shoukei was questioning their existence. Not why they existed or whether they did but their loyalty. An organization that had the power, the muscle and the network fed by the long regin of Tatsu-ou and the kings before him could be lethal or invaluable. Not knowing who was in this organization, we spoke nothing to anyone. Until we could discern their loyalties and what their plans were, we would not move. Seeing that Shoukei is the leader of the rebels and knowing that she never did anything half-hearted or anything short of perfection-"
"So she took over the leader position of Satouku because they went rogue," Shouryu nodded. The pieces were fitting into the bewildering puzzle.
"But that does not explain why she's attacking us," Koshou said.
"Conversely it does. She must not have been able to find a way to subdue them. There is only one reason why she could be attacking us," Koukan laughed. He could feel the tension rolling off as he stood from his vigil.
"To break them down." The two men stated.
"I wish she could have sent us a letter instead of going such a roundabout manner," Koukan groused though there was no heat in his words. He instructed the handmaiden that hovered far out in the hallway, too far to hear anything but close enough should they have any commands for her to summon the Left General. He didn't need to be told that Shoukei had not done that because of she was not sure of the eyes and ears that it might pass through.
Even twenty years on the throne had not allowed Yoko to eradicate all the naysayers and corrupted.