Her head felt like it was on fire when she awoke. The room was dark. No one had bothered to light it up while she had been asleep. She shifted, trying to get a better look at the sky outside to guess what time it was. The dark shadow beside the bed shifted, touching her cheek with its rough fingers. Yoko felt something cool drape her neck.
"W-h" she tried to speak, but her tongue lay languidly in her mouth.
"Welcome back," the husky voice said. She could hear some shuffling before the smell of sulphur and the sharp bright flare that made her eyes dance. Shouryu sat in the chair beside her bed. He placed the small lamp aside and moved to sit directly beside her. "How do you feel?" He gazed at her with an odd look. In her hazy mind, Yoko found herself unable to determine what that look meant.
"Pai-n" her tongue worked hard to enunciate the simple word.
He smiled, his hand unconsciously reaching for hers. "Since we gave you the Kandi flowers, you've been asleep for a whole day and night. We were almost worried that you wouldn't wake up."
"The blue flowers with white tips."
She frowned. She remembered that. She remembered hunting two weeks in the yellow sea. It was a terrible quest. Why would she need to drink the Kandi flowers? Why did her head hurt? She moved to touch her head, only to find it swathed in cloth. "Jin-a-ku-" she muttered, her face bleaching what little colour she had at the memory of the man. She had trusted the man. Trusted him, enough to risk sneaking into the minister's dungeons to rescue him, but the joke was on her. The minister walked in on her while she was freeing Jinhaku and they recognized her. Thinking that it might had all been a misunderstanding, she tried to order them to free Jinhaku. They never captured Jinhaku. Jinhaku had been sitting there all the time waiting for her to come. She had been too slow to realize it was a trap. An empress had protocols to follow. Jinhaku knew she could be tricked into drinking.
"Whe' is he?" She asked in a manner as forceful as she could with her tired body.
"How?" She looked at Shouryu. The man that had gazed straight into her eyes a few moments ago could not seem to her eyes now. "You kille' -im? –Why?"
"I thought that I could free you from his control." He sighed. He brushed her fringe from her forehead, his brown eyes taking on a faraway look. She gripped his hands as she felt sleep drag her back. "-be here when you wake," was all she could catch before the cloak of sleep covered her.
Shouryu sat there. For long, he was uncertain. He remembered vaguely the servants coming in to put out the lights and maybe even re-lighting it for the lamp on the table was still lit. There was the ever on-going murmur from the joining room. The generals or whoever Kantai had left in charge were discussing with Koukan on tactics.
He looked up, breaking from his thread of thoughts. Suzu stared at him and hurriedly upon realizing that he had noticed her staring, she threw her eyes onto the small bucket of water she was carrying. Her brown eyes had been filled with concern, one that Shouryu had gotten accustomed to being glanced at since he had arrived at the Kinpa Palace. He knew he looked worn out and mildly dishevelled. Maybe mildly was understating it. He sighed, lightly tugging his hoh straight. Kings were blessed with immortality were unlikely to be physically tired, only physically so it seemed.
Suzu pursed her lips, taking a careful look back at him again.
"Maybe you should rest. You seem tired." Suzu added, "Yoko- I mean, Her Majesty is in good hands here. There's half a dozen generals in the adjoining room and three shirei in her shadow should the need arise."
Shouryu chuckled. Suzu stared at him, unsure what was so funny. The chuckling went on before he sputtered into a fit of coughs.
"After all that commotion, she's in good hands now. It really is ironic."
She opened her mouth to reply but a male voice interrupted her retort.
Shouryu turned to the sound of the low voice. Koukan was standing at the door. His face looked every bit grave as he did when Shouryu had entered the room with the Kandi flower. The man never seemed to lighten up, right Yoko?
"The kingdom of Kei is thankful beyond words for you and En Taiho's assistance. As a civil war is imminent, we would like to urge you to return home as soon as possible."
An argument that they had gone through a few times. 'He never really gives up.' He was rather reminiscent of Shukou in a way.
"Lord Koukan," Shouryu paused, his eyes landing on Suzu. She hurriedly bowed before darting out of the room. "I was going to wait for Yoko to rouse before speaking of this matter, but it seems that you won't wait that long before chasing me out."
He held up a hand as Koukan snorted in derision.
"It is true that the reason behind the conspiracy is clear. But I am not here because of Kei's turmoil. I came here because I was tracking the trafficking of winter blades."
Surprise flitted through Koukan's eyes. Shouryu furrowed his brows as he spoke, his voice becoming graver by the each word. "Someone is selling winter blades from En and I need to know who."
Rankei felt the cold wind caress his cheeks. There was the smell of fear in the air as the army he led drew near the capital city. Everyone knew what they were about to do was to commit treason. Did the reasons they had justified the means? Rankei by no means was forcing them to follow it through. He, himself had wordlessly watched people deflecting as they approached their destination. He gave no sign of disapproval or anger as he watched them.
This was solely their choice.
He had made it certain that they realized that.
He could see the surge of people below there. A feeling in him sank. It was cold and heavy and caught itself on his throat. Rankei swallowed, staring down at the people listlessly. Never had he dreamt that his mission and desire to help Yoko would propel him to drive a rebellion against her.
'A "rebellion",' he corrected himself.
All technicalities aside, he still could be charged for rebellion.
"Well ready or not, here we come," he muttered.
Unlike most days where he was calm and patient, Keiki found himself unable to sit still. His master was finally awake; up and about from whatever that had held her captive in her own mind. Still smelling of blood and he still bedridden from the blood sickness, he was unable to personally see her. Or rather, the fact that he was unable to stand by her as her advisor chagrined him. She had come by to visit him several times, taking much care to not linger too long so as to not aggravate his already poor condition.
"How is Master?" he asked for the umpteenth time to his shirei.
If Hankyo could display any sign of impatience or exasperation, Hankyo would have mostly definitely done so as he replied Keiki for what seemed to be the twentieth time since Keiki rose five hours ago, "There is no change in Her Majesty's condition."
Maybe the slight pause or the slow drawling speech could be considered exasperation.
"She is also here," Hankyo added with perhaps a smirk in his throaty voice before disappearing.
"Hello Keiki," Yoko greeted somewhat dispiritedly as she entered the room without her usual entourage.
"Your Majesty! Where is your handmaidens?"
She turned around, her face puzzled at his question. Her lips formed an O as she realized her ladies-in-waiting were not straggling behind as they typically did.
"Did you lose them again?" He asked sternly after a slight sigh. She was safe enough in the Seishin with not only his three shirei shadowing her but the Daiboku and his two other men surreptitiously tailing her every move. He had confirmed with his Shirei about this several times. There had been no lull in the number of competent and trustworthy men guarding her at all times as there had been previously. Regardless, no Queen should be without her entourage. It was just improper.
"I didn't lose them. I sent them away."
"You sent them away," Keiki repeated flatly. He wondered how much more un-Queenly his master could be.
I should exonerate her from such expectations I suppose. As a Queen, she is doing exceptional work.
"Your Majesty-" he started, slowly thinking of how he should praise her work. Genkun had told him after all that he had to work on his praise and cut down on his disapproval.
"Save your scolding for later. I have something important to talk to you about." Her face was impassive, empty of emotions.
Jaw working under the weight of the many things she wanted to say, Yoko found herself at lost at how to begin. The whole thing left a terrible taste in her mouth.
"The ministers are pushing to execute Shoukei and Rankei," she said quickly and blandly.
He frowned. Keiki always frowned at everything she did. Was there ever going to be a time where he didn't frown or sigh at what she did or did not do? She groaned inwardly. Were all Kirins, with the exception of Rokuta, this dour?
"Your Majesty, I believe deciding the punishment before arresting them is a bit premature."
"That is what I told them. Koukan is also advising for that, however it seems that almost majority of the ministers are in favour of that."
She fiddled with her sleeves as she remembered their insistent reasoning behind it. At least she managed to stop the damage at Shoukei and Rankei. She was almost worried that they were going to force her to oust all the others. You think that being the Queen meant that she had the absolute authority.
"It doesn't help that both Shoukei and Rankei were from the inner circle. I suspect Ringen might have been with working with them. I need to bait Ringen into falling for it." Yoko stood up abruptly, bracing herself for another of his infamous sighs. "I'm leaving this evening for the battlefield. Kantai is already there. You will stay here. Koushou will be following me. That is all."
Without waiting for a reply, she hurried out.
Yoko was tired of all these politics. Heaven knows when she would be able to finally procure ministers that were trustable as Koukan were. There was no acrimony towards Shoukei and Rankei for their actions. After considering all the possible solutions and situations, they had done what was the best action. People killed in rebellion was better than people arrested on the possibility of them rebelling. The latter always promoted more rebel growth while the former cut the lines of right and wrong well. Citizens knew the people that were arrested later and killed were clearly in the wrong. There was no need of speculation, no angry mob or behind closed door whispering.
Yoko, in retrospect, should have envisaged this. She had been too soft on the wrong doers. Koukan had demanded a more severe punishment, Shouryu had advised to be harsher but she had always been keen to give people another chance. Her fists clenched, her knuckles turning white from its exertion. Her nails imprinted small, white crescents into her palms.
Underneath Yoko's bland expression, was a cold fury that she hid well. She was not wrong. She was angry, angry not at anyone else but herself. She was a terrible queen, constantly making mistakes. She knew she relied too heavily on Shoukei. Even the ministers knew she relied heavily on Shoukei. It would not be too far-fetched that this had been a product from an estranged group of ministers. Shoukei was relying on her to put the finishing touches on the ones too high for Shoukei to bait. Yoko paused in mid-step. An idea was slowing forming in her mind.
"Hankyo. Follow Ringen and tell me who he interacts with, what he says and do."
"As you wish," the voice from her feet replied.
She had set the pieces; now all she had to do was wait from something. Turning her mind back to the conversation with Shouryu, she wondered tiredly how she was going to settle it.
Someone is selling winter blades from En and I need to know who.
Given the amount of trouble she had been wading in, Yoko had not anticipated that this predicament also had affected other kingdoms. Had it only come from En? Was it possible that some could had come from Tai and Kou? She discussed this at great length with Shouryu and the shirei that had trailed after the carts. In the end, Shouryu had left the palace with the implicit request for her not to quell the rebellions before he told her otherwise. It was a hard promise to keep. Especially so when he provided her so little information.
Gazing out and down the sea of clouds, Yoko could almost see the city below. How many more blood had to be shed before she could rule the throne as she was told to? Sitting up above the clouds always made her feel so distant.
He pulled the hood over his head, lightly springing into the dimly lit room. His feet barely made a sound on the carpeted floor. Hidden in the shadows, he peered at the girl that hunched over the desk. She was engrossed in her work, too engrossed that she had barely registered until her bodyguard had hauled her out of the chair to place himself between her and the intruder.
"Wait," the girl called out, her hand catching the bodyguard's sleeve.
The bodyguard turned slightly to glance at his charge from the corner of his eye.
"It's okay. I was expecting him."
He growled a bit, muttering under his breath about people being unable to use the door as he returned to his spot.
"What can I do for you, En-Ou?" She asked, bowing at him.
"You were expecting me?" Shouryu asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Eventually you'd come to a dead end while searching information about the Tokis. Then you'd look for the most likely person to hold information." Shoukei smiled humourlessly. "I suppose you've gone through the same locations and people as Yoko had?"
Shoukei turned to Youtashi, "Would you bring Rou here?"
Shouryu had expected that she would have had Rou. He had scoured the places and sent his shirei to find Rou, only to find him with Shoukei. Yoko had expressed a confidence in Rou and he felt inclined to believe in her confidence.
The man that was called Rou came in tottering behind the lean bodyguard. Grey haired and small beady eyes gave him a shady look. Rou scanned the room before seeing Shouryu standing in the shadows. Unsure of what to say, he bowed.
"What can I do for you?" he asked in his weasely voice.
"What do you know about the Tokis?"
"Not as much as you think, to be honest. I had been the main go-to person after her majesty had installed me in. However before me was a man called Ringyou. He had mysteriously disappeared not long after I came."
Shoukei passed a piece of paper to him. On it was a drawing of a man, hair that was a shock of blue and brown eyes. There was nothing particularly special about him, but there was something familiar about him. Shouryu tapped his mouth, thinking hard about this Ringyou.
"He was the one who had established the trade routes and the people along the routes. It changed hands regularly with almost six other people doing that I did. It was difficult to tell from which they were from."
He threw three tokis at Shouryu's feet.
"They're all from different kingdoms."
Bending over them, Shouryu inspected them with an expert eye. The hilts and sheaths had each kingdom's distinct designs on them: En, Ryuu and Kou.
"Much of them were from En."
So it seemed that the numbers that he had noticed going missing was barely the surface. What was the real motive? Money? Discord? Reputation? Pride? Shouryu could not fathom what or why any of his ministers would do such a thing. Was the system rotting without him realizing? He stared hard at the drawing.
"Looks like- Ringen?" Shouryu mumbled.
"Sorry, when I saw that man, I took the opportunity to ask Rakushun to do some investigating."
She handed him another piece of paper. This time was a family registry. On it clearly said that Ringen was not related to Ringyou. Shouryu turned away. He knew who Ringyou reminded him of.
"Rikaku." He called out, as he leapt out of the window. The shirei appeared instantly, catching him on its back. "En."
The shirei flew spiralling into the air. The man was one of his minor sages. He was not so great a king to remember every single of his staff but he remembered this man's face. He had not understood why back then for there was something about him that made Shouryu notice him. The man was exceedingly careful around him. Most people were careful around him in fear or in awe, but that man was neither.
"Kibou. Find Ryouryu and make sure he does not leave the palace. I want him alive."
Shouryu ran a list of things he had to accomplish and do.
It was almost dawn when he arrived at the Genei palace. Tired and mentally exhausted, Shouryu slid off the shirei. The doors had already swung open when the guards had seen him on the horizon. It was not hard for them to guess who it was seeing that it was a shirei and all.
"Your majesty." They greeted, kneeling face down on the ground.
Shouryu strode forward purposefully, his mind occupied on other things had barely registered the kneeling ministers and servants as he advanced deeper into the palace. It was another five minutes of meandering through the long palace halls where he finally stopped in front of a set of doors.
"Your majesty-" Hakutaku called out, finally catching up with him. He was not very pleased with Shouryu's and Rokuta's long disappearance. It had almost been two months since they disappeared. Sure they had disappeared longer than that before, but at least they had the decency on letting themselves be contactable. Especially when they wandered into Sou. Hakutaku had thought this might had been one of those times.
Shouryu turned to face him. His face was hard. His eyes lacked any mischievous mirth that it always seemed to have. His majesty was on business. Regardless of any unhappiness he had with En-ou's recently behaviour, it would have to wait until he was done with his business.
"Is he here?" Shouryu asked.
It was not directed to him but to his feet as it was the voice beneath his feet that replied. "Yes."
Shouryu motioned at the doors and the servants swung it open. In it was a lowly minister. Ryouryu, if Hakutaku remembered correctly. He walked into it and glanced at Hakutaku.
"Well come in, if you're going to listen in," he said, though the tone was more commanding than nonchalant. It carried barbs that even Hakutaku rarely heard in his all five hundred years of service.
Shouryu motioned to the doors again as Hakutaku stepped it. The servants closed the doors behind them, leaving only Shouryu, Hakutaku and the lowly minister in the room.
"Rikaku. Summon Shukou, Seishou and his two subordinates here."
"As you wish," the voice permeated from the ground."
It seemed like years before Hakutaku finally heard the pounding down the hallway. In those brief moments of silence, he had never felt more awkward with his majesty than before. Shouryu had stared, or rather glared at the quavering minister so hard that Hakutaku had to wonder what on earth had the minister done.
Shukou, Seishou burst into the room, followed closed by his two subordinates, Kouho and Souzai.
"Your majesty?" Hakutaku asked.
The sound of the doors slamming shut reverberated in the long silence.
Shouryu did not even glance at the newcomers or even when the doors slammed shut. They were beginning to think that his majesty had forgotten that they were standing there.
"Tell me, Ryouryu, how long has this been going on?" Shouryu said in a hard voice. He sat down and poured himself a cup of tea. Despite the seemingly easygoing actions, his movements were stiff. "If you tell me the truth, I might go easy on you."
Ryouryu gulped audibly. His hands were clasped before him tightly entwined together. Shouryu chugged the cup of tea down before slamming the cup so hard onto the table that it smashed.
"Tell me! Was the money good?" Shouryu unsheathed the blade from his belt. He eyed the blade and then the hilt. "It's quite a good blade. One of the second grade ones, I might add."
"Was it just you?" He turned to Ryouryu. "No it wasn't, was it?"
"Your majesty- I-" Ryouryu started, his tongue failing him desperately. "I-"
"Did you know about this, Seishou?" Shouryu shook his head. "You didn't did you? That look in your eye tells me so. But not for your subordinate."
Shukou pursed his lips. "Your majesty. Perhaps it might be good to start from the beginning."
Fight not with pride but with the acknowledgement that every stroke is heavy. Only then can you consider yourself as a true warrior.
Rankei had always thought he understood what Tai-Ou had meant when he had told him that. However standing on the brink of a war, it was only then he truly understood it. He had been talking about the weight of death. Breaking in and out of jail was nothing compared to the battlefield.
His arms ached. He was disgusted at himself for even thinking of that. How many people would have been happy to be sitting in his position thinking of his aching arms. Rankei had done his best to spare as many as he could. Eventually it was his fatigue that had claimed many of their lives. He sagged heavily against his sword. Almost all his army was annihilated. Just as planned.
The girl made her way through the tired men, some barely noticing her in their exhaustion. She stopped in front of Rankei, unsure of how she was going to begin.
"Youshi?" Rankei said tentatively. There was an unreadable look on her face as she looked down upon him.
"I'm not angry, if that's what you're going to ask." She replied softly to the unasked question. Placing her hand onto his sweaty shoulder, she gripped it tightly in a non-verbal gratitude that she found difficult to vocalize. "You accomplished what you needed to do. Now I need you to get Shoukei and go to En."
"You mean- to flee?" His voice cracked at the last syllable. There was dismay on his face as he continued, "Are the ministers forcing you?"
Yoko shook her head with a sigh. "We need to buy some time."
"Your majesty." Came the disembodied voice from her shadow. "They're coming."
"Hurry!" She practically hurled Rankei from his seat. "Tama is behind the inn."
She turned and did not look back, but Rankei did. As he did it, he wondered how long it would be before he would see her again.