When Yoko came into power, all she had done was listen to grown men bicker like children. Men that had grown fat and blind from the past queens were slow to realize that she was not going to put up with it. It was only after the exile of the thirteenth minister that they finally started panicking. The ministers were terrible, unlike Shouryu who had at least the bare twenty people to depend on, Yoko had but ten. They had run themselves ragged trying to rebuild the impoverished Kei and though Kei was starting to flourish, the effects were small and slow. The older ministers were unwilling to listen to her. Common queen they would mock her behind her back. Yoko found it extremely exasperating. They complained how ineffective she seemed yet was reluctant to help her. It was like screaming that the house was on fire and then they turned off the water supply. Was she not the legitimate ruler?
Yoko's mouth twitched into a wry smile as she pondered over the situation. It seemed funny that Heaven gave her the throne, yet every time things began to look up, they threw something else at her. It was as though the heavens were taunting her and laughing at her. Tiredly, she rubbed her forehead, watching the waitress pour her a cup of tea before whisking away to put in an order for Yoko's food. First it was that fake queen, then the Wa province upheaval, the six ministers rebellions and now this. More like first it was Keiki being kidnapped then the fake queen. She swore a little, her fist falling a little too heavily onto the table. Startled, the customers nearby stared at her wide eyed. Under normal circumstances, Yoko would have done her best not to draw attention to herself. Her hair was usually dyed and clothes were usually mildly grimy, all calculated to the maximum effect of blending in. However this time, she wanted to draw attention. Her bright red hair was practically an invitation for speculation whether she was the queen, not to mention her clothes were rather expensive looking and extremely clean. She had delayed the surrender of the rebellion forces by almost two weeks. Shouryu had left for En almost three weeks ago, he should have had settled the matter. Having left implicit instructions should Shouryu send word, Yoko had started to worry that maybe things were worse in En than he had anticipated.
'First focus on Kei,' she muttered. Perhaps her head was really hurting and it was not some phantom pain that royal physician had suggested.
Phantom pain, as if. Yoko scoffed; she was not so weak to fall prey to such things.
Shoukei and Keikei had baited the large portion of the dissidents, furthermore gave her the perfect reason to do a witch hunt. It had not worked quite as well as they had planned it to be. Shoukei, without a doubt, would have planned it so that Yoko would not to send them out of Kei for their well being. Shoukei would have also tied things up a little neater. A large portion of the people she had captured had been followers. She was still missing the masterminds – the real masterminds. What their real goals were, how many, where they were from, Yoko had no answers to them. Shoukei put them at maybe five, Rankei suggested eight or nine. She had been wandering through the streets with her bright red hair to see if she could rouse any reaction, but weeks passed and still nothing. From their actions, Yoko had assumed that their goal was the throne, but if they had not even attempted to capture her then perhaps it wasn't. It was a reason that she preferred it to be. The solutions to those reasons were easy and uncomplicated, at least not as complicated as what the solutions might have to been if the reasons weren't. What other reasons could it be? She had checked carefully if there had been some underlining reason why the ministers had rebelled. Was there some strange resource or maybe an abusive minister? She had uncovered nothing, not even from the so-called masterminds. They all had their own motives varying from feeling unappreciated after supporting the kingdom through the hard times to simply wanting power. It lacked the unifying motive and strength to tie and push the whole rebellion to its current state. Shoukei and Rankei had not fed the motives but rather merely routed it to a state that was easier for Yoko to resolve.
Let's start with the main gist of the rebellion. Yoko mentally replayed the whole fiasco, ticking each point with her fingers. First, Shoukei had found the previous King's shadow organization for Kei and it was corrupted. Second, she tried to remove the corruption but was unable to. She then tried to find a way of removing the organization which consequently led her to realize a number of ministers that had merged into a whole cluster of something called big trouble. Third, Shoukei realized the easier way to get rid of it was to let it bloom fully so they could remove the entire plant in one shot.
Yoko gazed out of the window she sat by. She hadn't noticed, but the window provided a nice clear view of the Tougoku mountains. It rose high up into the sky, pass the sea of clouds. Up there would be the Bu governor's palace. Now it would be empty seeing that she had just removed him from the sage's list. The offices would largely be empty as well since a lot of his ministers had joined the rebellion. Rakushun would be in there, temporarily working for her until she could find someone trustworthy.
She had found Sekki in one of the rooms in there. Thin lines wrought his face. His eyes seemed to have almost sunk into his face. His arms were too thin for his frame when he clasped his hands together to bow. The Hekisoujo had been working overtime to keep him alive. They had denied him of food after Shoukei left with Keikei. They guessed that Sekki was one of Yoko's trusted allies by then and short of killing him, they had made his life a living hell. To be honest, they couldn't have killed him even if they wanted to. It was not as though they didn't try.
"Your majesty." A low voice called out from beneath her feet.
She nodded almost indiscernibly.
"The man is making a move."
Pulling a long sip, she muttered, "Are they coming to me?"
"No. It appears that they have no interest in you."
The queen was out down below, looking for the culprits. That rumour had circulated enough for it to come back to her. If they were bold enough to raise a rebellion to take over Kinpa Palace, then they would be bold enough to try to assassinate the Queen without her guards. So the throne was truly not their goal. They smuggled huge sums of Toki, rebelled – for what ends? The unanswered question hung ominously over her head like an axe.
She turned her head to catch a glimpse of the man. The man that strolled down the neatly paved stones seemed uncaring of any watching eyes. Pausing as at a street vendor, he seemed to contemplate and then banter one of the goods. Yoko hesitated in her reflection of the man's purpose. It was unlikely that the shirei had found the wrong man. Conversely, the man could have been a cover or the cover had been another man and he felt it was unlikely that he would be found. Her fingers tapped the side of the cup as she watched him cross the street.
She looked down at her shadow, surprised. "Is it him?"
Getting up, she threw some coins onto the table. The red head was halfway down the street by the time she had slung her sword over her back and down into the dark alley before the waitress even registered that she had left.
The man crossed yet another street. The fourth street, she was counting. There was carelessness in his posture that reminded her strongly of Shoukou. His dark grey hair and the features on the face did bear quite a resemblance. Yoko would not have hesitated on considering that the man might be Shoukou, except that he was the only minister in all the ministers that she dismissed that was executed. She might not have enjoyed it, but she had watched his execution too. Some of the soldiers that had been under his rule cheered and there were many celebrations that night. Yoko did not participate. Instead she sat in the dark of her room, watching the unkyo wondering that if she could have foreseen it or stopped it. She was the Queen, God in some people's eyes, but she was far from perfect. She knew that. She knew of all her flaws and faults and frequently wondered why Keiki had even picked her. Though that had been almost sixteen years ago, it seemed that another Shoukou lookalike was back to haunt her. She scrutinized him. The look in his eyes was very much like Shoukou. Was it a reincarnation? She almost scoffed at her thoughts before realizing one crucial fact. If in this world, there are immortals and flying beasts that transform into man, what made her think reincarnation was impossible?
"Ringen-" She muttered, as though savouring the word. The man was an enigma. He had a plot of land up north near Gantou and a plot down south in You province. Why would anyone get two plot of lands so far from each other? It wasn't feasible unless you put in trading or smuggling in this case from the neighbouring countries. Yet when asked to describe Ringen, the description of the man was different. Some described him as a dark skinned, tall, fair, short, fat, muscular. All contradictory and the minister that was called Ringen was none of those. The minister, Ringen was a soft spoken man of average height, not fat nor skinny, not fair or dark skinned, just average.
The man, shifted his head quickly around. The carelessness in his posture was overlaid now with a tension. It had all been an act and he was a terribly good actor until now. Yoko pulled her thoughts together as she watched him go into a building. She would have to follow him now to solve the mystery once and for all.
With quick feet, Yoko made for the alley adjacent to the building. There was no need for her to order the shirei to check the building. Having served her for the last ten years had enabled them to foretell her next commands would be.
"There are ten men on the first floor and twenty on the second. The man, Ringen is on the third. There is only six men on the third floor."
"Great. Just great." Yoko grunted in displeasure, her eyes scanning the sides of the building for anything that could get her up to the third floor. There was a small tiny tree that went halfway to the second floor. If the vines on the side of the other building could bear her weight long enough, she might just be able to jump to the side and grab the edges of the window. Gingerly placing her weight onto the small scraggily tree, she had almost leapt off the vines when the disembodied voice startled her.
"Your majesty- I can fly you up there."
She palmed her forehead, forgetting the entirely too obvious way up there. Straddling Hankyo, Hankyo leapt up the building. Yoko could feel his powerful body as he leapt then hovered near the window.
She nudged Hankyo, moving even closer to the window. Yoko sneaked a peak in the room, jerking back in alarm as she realized someone was sitting back facing the window. Three at the table while the other two were standing. They looked familiar.
"Of course it failed, we all knew it would. None of us had actually planned for it to succeed," the tall, muscular one replied hotly.
"Don't deny it Ringyou. You were practically hysterical when Jin captured the Queen." Unable to get a look at the speaker, Yoko dubbed him as quaverer for his voice was quavering as though he was scared.
Ringyou huffed. Jerking his thumb at the man at the window, he replied, "Maito also was worried then."
"Don't go adding words into other people's mouth. Besides, we're not blaming anyone."
"In any case we need to decide our next steps," the fat man interjected.
"Do you think the queen will get the rest? Jin said that she had been tracking the tokis and even sent her lackey in. Not to mention our Kou and En contacts have disappeared. She's probably behind that."
Kou and En contact disappeared? Yoko thought with a frown. Shouryu might have gotten his hands on the En contact, but Kou? She hadn't even gotten to talking about Kou. Admittedly she had forgotten about Kou because there was a substantial difference in the amount of tokis from En and Kou. But they were waiting for her to get the rest? You mean, they weren't the rest?
"Shoukei disappeared too along with the lackey. She was behind it the whole time. That little b-"
The man by the window started laughing. It was not just any laughter. He laughed and laughed, clutching his sides as he doubled over in laughter.
Hankyou ducked beneath the balcony of neighbouring balcony. Through its planks, Yoko could make out the window. The man had turned around to stare into the sky. The man, he was the one that looked like Shoukou! Wasn't he called Ringen? But the other man called him Maito.
Ringen or Maito wiped his tears away as his laughter finally died down. "Another Queen. They say she's decent considering she had managed to stay longer than the past three queens. We were all pining on her to destroy it when we should have been trying to destroy it ourselves. Haven't we been around longer than the Queen?"
A silence fell over them as they contemplated his question.
"We could have. Might have. Things need to be ended officially. Wasn't that what you taught us? We could have destroyed it ourselves, but it would have an effect on Kei-ou's government. But I'm sure what I'm going to say is true not just for me, but to you-" The quaverer responded at length. "We only bothered because it was her. You've seen what she had done. She's- not just trying to make this kingdom prosperous, she's trying to shape the soul of it."
Yoko twitched at his words, feeling a flush of heat like she had been lying in the sun for far too long. For most people, she had heard the lack of faith in her abilities whether it was intentionally or unintended. The people of Kei pined for Tatsu.
"Thank you-" she said. If it had not been unqueenly to do so, Yoko would have flung herself at him, blubbering in relief and gratitude. Then Keiki would sigh in disappointment yet again.
"Who's there!" The quaverer asked, pushing Maito into the room and drawing his sword.
She could feel Hankyo hackles raised as he began a low growl. Patting him absentmindedly, she nudged him forward from under the balcony.
"Kei-ou," she replied. She gave them a small smile as they gaped at her. "and thank you."
She bowed deeply. Her heart was singing, her mind still replaying their words.
"We didn't-" The fat man started. "I mean- We thought-"
The quaverer was a young man that was shorter than her but had long white scars running down his exposed forearms. "What Ryouto wanted to say was we thought you'd be going after the masterminds and not here. Wasn't it why you blatantly exposed your possible Queen status in town?"
"I thought I found the masterminds," the red head sighed. Crossing her arms with a mock angry look, she continued, "It'd seem that my detectives found the wrong masterminds."
Laughter rang through the wooden room. Their bodies trembled as they struggled to stop laughing to no avail.
"Wrong masterminds-" howled Ryouto as he almost got a grip of his laughing.
Yoko waved her hands, clutching her stomach as she wiped the tears away. Taking large gulps of air, she sobered up.
"It seems that I'll need to talk sternly to my investigators. And while they work on that, perhaps you could tell me what exactly is going on."
That got them sober fast, their heads bowed, falling into deferential positions.
"You mean you didn't know yet-? I thought you were supposed to tell Queen!" Ringen rounded to a man standing in the shadows.
"No one told me anything."
Youtashi stepped out of the shadows. His eyebrows knotted tightly as he stared at her.
"I apologize, your highness. I was given the mission to inform you of the real situation but there wasn't a good timing to do so without giving my cover away. At that point no one in the group knew of me being an ally. Rishou and Shinzou were highly suspicious of me and to give my cover away would mean that I would be unable to come to aid should the need arise. Please forgive me, I was unable to stop you from falling into Jinhaku's trap." He fell onto a knee, his head bowed with shame.
Yoko stared at him, her mouth slightly gaping at him. With the three of them having betrayed her, she had assumed that Youtashi had been like them.
"I forgive you," she finally said, her voice sounding smaller than it usually was. Clearing her throat, she turned to Maito with a raised eyebrow.
Maito chuckled. "Well let's start from the beginning then." He motioned at the hot tea that he just poured. "I am Mai Tokuhoushi. It's a long surname, hence why I'm referred mostly as Maito. I am, I mean I was the leader and founder of Hetaito. That's the real name of the organization you approached. We use code words like Satouku to differentiate the access levels which also factors into the urgency level. Satouku is the level for Haku level sages and above – which by the way means extremely high urgency. I ran Hetaito for almost two hundred years before stepping down. My successor was Jinhaku."
His smiling face hardened. "He was a good man."
"He ran Hetaito well," Ringen said softly. His words almost seemed to comfort. "He really did."
"Well, I was tired of running an organization and the immense responsibility so I passed it to my successor and went to see the world."
"Jinhaku continued well into Gyou-ou's rule but at the end of her rule, he decided that if legitimate rulers couldn't do the job well then why not him." Youtashi said after Maito lapsed into silence. He clenched his fists as he continued. His voice dropping to a barest whisper, his knuckles turning white. "He then brainwashed much of the Hetaito as well Bu province's ministers. Those that would not submit were killed quietly. Mai was missing, we had no idea how to contact him and for centuries we were out of touch from the royal palace and the original liaison had passed away. So with only the seven of us willing to make a stand, we had to do it intelligently. Rather than smuggling tokis from Kou which would have been far safer and discreet, we took it from En. Our ruse was that En's weapons were better since their kingdom had a far longer period of peace to cultivate it. We had few allies, so in order to identify each other, we introduced ourselves as Ringen."
Yoko snapped her head to the man she thought was Ringen. "No wonder the descriptions didn't match up! I thought he was Ringen."
The man she once thought was Ringen gave her a wry smile. "I'm Ginpa." Then pointing to the quaverer and lean, suntanned man, he said, "Kahoki and Ikoshi."
It must have her comment that changed the tension in the room. The dark sombre atmosphere was lighter, almost cheerful. Of course, she had not commented just because she realized it. Yoko had become far more adept in monitoring room tensions and atmospheres and changing it to suit her needs in her last twenty years of rule. Maito sat before her, he seemed to lean on his wrist in an almost carefree manner. His eyes however were brooding and filled with what she supposed must be guilt. Hetaito was his child and he should have looked after it better. Those were probably his thoughts. There would be a time to deal with the guilt that he probably did not really deserve, but it was not the time now. She had far too more significant things to deal with that were considered imperative. So she simply laughed, her green eyes gliding over the faces in the room; her mind was mentally working on the reasons and explanations, filing away the faces and names for later references and deliberation.
"Then what happened?"
"I noticed the smuggling and slipped in to find out what was going on only to find out that everyone was either corrupted or unwilling to be different." She was surprised that Maito picked up the story where Youtashi had left off. His grey eyes flickered over her face, catching her green eyes for a moment. There was an imperceptible meaning in them – almost judging.
"Unable to recover authority or loyalty, I decided to take it down. Destroying essential buildings discreetly."
"Wait," she grabbed his hand at the revelation. "Shoukei was trying to take the organization down as well. Why didn't you just work with her?"
He shook his head. "Our means to the end were incongruent. Shoukei wanted to expose them so the Queen could officially get rid of them which was extremely messy as you know. I wanted to do away with them and the organization as neatly and quickly as possible. Though, things spun out of control for both of us. Sensing your subordinates' danger, I sent Youtashi to retrieve and protect them."
"Your majesty- Do you believe in Heaven's will?" Maito asked in a tightly controlled voice. He continued with the shake of her head. "You were born in Hourai. Have you ever wondered why?"
Pacing the room, he gestured vaguely with his observations. "You were sixteen when you ascended. Kei Taiho took two years to find you. The Queen before that ruled six years. Gyou-ou, the Queen before You-ou ruled for four with an interim of twenty-one years. If you were born in Kei as you should have, you would have been either killed or exiled like plenty of the women were during her reign. Or killed during Gyou-ou's reign. Was it a coincidence that your ranka was swept away in a storm? I think not."
The red head did not respond to his rambling. Shoukou had talked about Heaven's Will. In a land where God was visible in all aspects of life, she did not think that she would encounter the age old topic of her homeland. Was there Fate? Was Fate unstoppable?
"And your point being?" She responded with a passive voice.
"I just thought it was interesting." He remarked. He stopped his pacing, his gesturing hands falling to the sides. "Interesting that you'd appear before us instead of the people that should have been found. No." He corrected himself, "You found us because we were the most obvious answers. Who is Ringen? Why are they doing this? Come, I'll show you."
He spun around and headed towards the door.
They had been riding with an easy pace, much unlike the pace she was used to whenever she was down below. Being down below had always been accompanied with tension, anxiety and fear that she could not voice. First it was her journey from Japan to Kou then Kei, then recovering her throne, the rebellion in Wa, the three ministers rebellion. She heaved a sigh; though whether it was from relief or exasperation, Yoko herself was unsure.
"Something the matter, your majesty?" Kahoki asked. His voice had a tremulous tone to it, had she not have known that it was his usual voice, she might have mistaken him for being afraid. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she wondered if his voice had ever gotten him into trouble. Judged for being quiet, judged for sounding fearful, judged for being a female queen. Mentally adding to her ever-growing list, Yoko privately decided that her life's duty as the Queen of Kei would be to have the citizen of Kei, open, honest and not judgemental. Tall orders she had sent for herself.
"Nothing-" she started before pausing. Her brows knotted into concentration as she pondered over another life's greatest mystery.
"What do you think of Heaven's Will?"
He gaped at her, taken aback by her sudden question from a conversation three days ago. He scratched his head, slowly choosing his words or maybe just hesitant and guarded. "I don't think it has anything to do with me. Maybe if you were a king or praying for a child. But does it really exist?"
"Kahoki- you're only saying that because you're single!" Ginpa interjected, pulling his Kijyuu beside them. "Take a look at me! It's because Heaven bestowed on me that's why I have six gorgeous daughters! I believe in Heaven's Will!"
"Soon seven!" Ginpa laughed loudly.
"Are you trying to make a whole village by yourself?"
"I can't help it! It's Heaven's Will!"
"I think you're going to run out of money to feed them first-"
The good natured bantering gradually died as the group neared the edge of En. The village that housed the plot of land loomed closer. Plots of land near En had always been the safer ones. They were always full of people, filled to its capacity. This village however was empty.
The half upright shutter waved futilely in the breeze that they brought as they landed. The houses were broken, abandoned with walls falling in disrepair and large gaping holes were the roofs were. One of the walls that had paved a majesty house once had crumbled into small broken bits. This was the plot of land that Yoko had been interested in: the plot of land at the end of Kei – or so it seemed to be.
A loud deafening silence had built up as they walked through the village. It felt like a great barrier that even Yoko found herself finding an excuse to fill her ears with noise even if it meant coughing rather loudly. The group turned at her and Ginpa proffered her some water to ease her 'coughing'. Finally they stopped at a patch of land, Maito turned and nodded to one of the men. The men reappeared almost instantaneously with shovels.
"Do you know who owns this land?" Maito asked softly. He arched a quizzical eyebrow at her.
She nodded. "Jinhaku?"
He shook his head. Turning his attention back to the men who had been dutifully digging without a single command, he pursed his lips, quietly watching their painful progress through the stony field.
"It did belong to Jinhaku, but it didn't belong to him. He did use Ringen's name as a cover without realizing what it truly referred to. Or maybe even used it to throw people off knowing what it meant. Anyway, he was intermediary for it. It was owned by a man called Ryouryu."
"From En," he added upon noticing Yoko's blank look.
Yoko's blank look was soon replaced by a look of horror as she stared down what their digging had started to reveal. Thin and white bones with varying degrees of decay. Piles and piles of them.
"Is this whole field-"
She did not need to finish her question for Maito nodded gravely. It was a child's skull that was revealed in another part of the field.
"Did he-" she faltered, her chest seemed to wench when she began to form her deductions. She couldn't take their words for real. She couldn't.
Spinning on her heel, she walked away – or fled would have been a better description, from the group. She swallowed shallowly, her face almost breaking the cool mask that she slipped on in down below. She clasped her chin with her hands, taking long shuddering breaths as she retreated from the group. There was a mix of fury and disgust at both herself and the one capable of such things that it seemed to overwhelm her. Not realizing where she had walked to, she entered one of the houses, freezing her step. It was not the missing roof or the missing wall for that matter that brought her frantic pacing to a standstill.
It was the table.
The table had straps on it with dark splotches staining its wood and floor. She did not need to make great leaps of thoughts to figure what had happened here. Her sword shone blue.
She did not want to see it.
Her hands shook violently as she removed the sword's wrapping.
A man was looking at the house with Jinhaku.
"This is the house and the land you requested, Ryouryu. What do you plan to do with it?"
A smirk, coy and mocking, tugged at his lips as he replied, "Do you want to know?"
"No, not really. I'll have the toki you promised, regardless. The less I know, the better off I'll be."
The scene shifted.
The man gleefully tied the girl to the table. The girl was not more than fifteen.
"Hands first? Or feet?" He smiled, holding up what seemed to be an awl in his hands.
"No?" he smiled wider this time. "I guess I get to choose then and I choose feet!" Swinging the awl, he hummed as he drove into her feet. She screamed till she had no voice to scream, dropping to the table like a doll. She was just a doll to him.
The sword fell from Yoko's shaking hands. Stumbling out of the door, her noon meal made an ungracious appearance on the floor.
"Hankyou," Yoko called out finally, mastering her breaths again. She schooled her face into the cool, blank mask, scrubbing the tear stains from her dusty face with her equally dusty sleeves. "Fly as fast as you can and tell En-ou what happened here. Tell him, I demand a harsh, the harshest possible punishment."
Were they citizens of Kei? It was very likely that his first victims were from this village itself, but it did not matter where they were from. Gripping her still trembling hands, she re-evaluated her actions and options.
Seishou listened and while he listened all he could think of was of how such a matter had bypassed him altogether.
The trembling man in front of him had been pushing tokis off as "unusable" and then selling it off to another man. All for the considerable amount of money and favours that they promised him. Was Ryouryu blinded by money that he was going to break one of the many Heaven's laws just for that? Seishou would have mocked anyone who would have suggested Ryouryu doing that. He had personally promoted the man. He had known Ryouryu way before either of them became immortals.
"Your majesty. Please punish me as well. I was blinded by my trust in him."
Shouryu looked at Seishou then at Ryouryu. Ryouryu had confessed to it. It was a serious punishment. Punishable by death just by the amount of quantities and if not the deed itself. He had been a fool, a greedy fool. "Naive fool," Shouryu said. "Do you really think you could get off it scat free? I sentence Ryouryu to death. Guards!" It was clear and precise, disdain dripping down his flat voice.
The doors burst open and the guards hauled the now crying man away. They could hear him wailing even with the doors closed.
Seishou lay prostrated on the ground. The man had always been serious about his work. Shouryu tapped his finger against his sword's hilt. "And for Seishou, for not properly checking," Shouryu paused, squatting down in front of the prostrating Seishou. "I sentence you to go to Shou Province and work at the Green Turtle inn until I say otherwise."
"Your majesty? I don't understand-"
"Er- I got some debts there, I kinda ran away –"
"Your majesty!" Hakutaku roared.
"How much did you lose?"
Shouryu coughed. "1000ryou" He replied really quickly.
"I'm going to be working there for a really long time, aren't I?" Seishou gazed blankly at Shukou.
"At least ten years," Shukou replied.
It was very late at night and two weeks later when he was rudely awaken by a very large white shadow.
"What is it Kibou?"
"I apologize for waking you up, En-ou. I am Kei taiho's shirei."
This had to be bad news. He groaned before pulling himself up. "Tell me."
He sat by the window, taking in every word that Hankyo relayed to him. His body going absolutely still, save for the movement of his chest. His mind had processed what he had heard. Far graver, far worse than what he could have thought possible from that timid man. That man wasn't timid. He wasn't greedy. It had been all a cover. Being greedy was pardonable, being timid was pardonable but killing people for pleasure wasn't.
"Thank you Hankyo. Tell Kei-ou that I will do my best."
" Unfortunately there isn't anything worse than the death penalty," he added dryly after the shirei had left.
It was good that Ryouryu's execution was only due the day after, Shouryu supposed as he pulled on his hoh and headed towards the cells with sword in hand. He stared at the man who sat resigned in the cell.
"Your majesty," he bowed. His fingers were trembling. Was he truly afraid?
"So I've heard you've enjoyed your time off in Kei, I thought that we should let you enjoy some of Kei's finest attractions on your last day of living," Shouryu said.
"Bring a table," he said to the guard. "A large one. Large enough to fit a man of his size."
Shouryu pointed at Ryouryu. Colour had fled Ryouryu's face. Shouryu smiled at him, but there was no mirth in it, only cold fury and disgust. "I heard you enjoyed this."
The light was reflecting off the turquoise tiled roof as they entered the Kinpa palace. A month had passed since they had fled Kei and then another three months before Keiki had come to fetch them. He had been ordered to go to En to fetch them and show Kei's gratitude for En's assistance. It was a really strange order when she was told by Keiki. Keiki had brought with him a large entourage of dancers and crafters to please En-ou. En-ou gratefully obliged by insisting they stay for another whole two weeks.
Genei palace was not uncomfortable. As respected guests of En-ou, they had been given almost anything they wanted. They still missed Kinpa palace. The vibes differed from palace to palace and Rankei missed travelling. There was nothing stopping Rankei from travelling, but Yoko had requested him to stay at En and by that she had referred to stay with En-ou, so repressing his desires to roam, he stayed where En-ou had placed him. Shoukei remembered the palace to constantly have a buzz. The ministers were moving back and forth with their work, standing in corners discussing about things. In certain parts of the palace you could even hear the muted quarrelling of opposition ministers. That was the palace that Shoukei had left from. The Kinpa palace she returned to was silent. The sound of her footstep echoed through the hallways. Even Rankei had paused at the door to what had been one of the noisiest rooms in the palace. The servants still hovered around, cleaning the floors and hallways, but there not a minister in sight.
"Welcome back-" a cheery voice called out from behind. Though it was soft, it seemed to expand and hover in the empty silence.
Suzu waved at the duo, her eyes twinkling in delight as her arms waved from side to side. Then motioning them to follow her, Suzu turned around to the hallway where she must have come from. She wasn't wearing her typical uniform which struck Shoukei as strange. Suzu had refused any position except Yoko's personal handmaid on the reasoning that she wasn't used to being anything but a servant.
"Where are we going?" Shoukei asked, noticing that they going to neither the great hall nor Yoko's private study.
"Somewhere I thought you might be interested in. He's still recovering so he can't come out and meet you."
Shoukei stared at Suzu puzzled.
"I meant Sekki," Suzu added after realizing that Shoukei had not understood. Rankei lingered behind as they approached a narrow hallway that sectioned off the ministers and Haku sages area, unsure if he was meant to follow. "You'll want to see this Rankei."
In the middle of the hallway, were several ministers loitering about and looking up at a board. "What-" Shoukei began asking as she found her name with a corresponding rank and position. "Is this a notice for position change or something? I'm a Taisai and that you're a- Choushi"
Shoukei turned back at Suzu, taking a long hard look at Suzu. Her clothes were right for a Choushi.
"Well it says I'm a Shoushiba- Wait. What?" Rankei pointed angrily at the board. "She made me a Shoushiba!? How dare she!"
He turned around with the right mind of storming into Yoko's office and rant loudly. He didn't deserve being given a rank. Rankei trotted down the empty hallways before spying Koshou standing outside one of the inner palace's room. Having been the adopted son of Kei-ou and grown up in the palace, he was a familiar to the guards who had not even bothered to stop him or call ahead for permission to let him in.
"You're back!" Koshou grinned, ruffled his hair before slapping his meaty hand onto Rankei's shoulders. "How was En?"
"It was boring. You know how En is. You've been there many times," he grumbled, shaking Koshou's heavy arm away. He hated how Koshou always seem treat him as a kid. Koshou stopped him as he reached for the doors.
"I don't think you should go in right now," Koshou said.
"Why? Who's inside?" Now he was extremely curious. There had been very few cases where he was not permitted to enter. Yoko should have known that he would come straight to her right after seeing the ranks on the newly created notice board.
"Well-" Glancing at the door, he dropped to a low whisper, "Kantai is inside at the moment."
Kantai? Rankei stared at Koshou in disbelief. Why was he being stopped for Kantai? Then before Koshou could stop him, he flung the doors open and shut behind him.
"Keikei?" He flinched unconsciously at the name and the tone of voice. Yoko was angry, very angry in fact. "Did Koshou not tell you to come in?" Her voice was sharp like invisible barbs cutting into his skin. She heaved a loud sigh, clasping her forehead. The jade ornaments hanging down her hair jangled from her sudden movement. She was wearing full formal wear. Rankei froze at that realization. Yoko almost never wore formal wear. She glared at him, her bright emerald eyes were hard, just like her slim hands that lay on the table.
"What's going-" His eyes darted around the room, searching for the friendly face Koshou had mentioned. Kantai was standing in a corner. His armor was dusty, just like his face. It was as though he jumped off the Kijyuu and came straight here. Kantai smiled weakly at him, his small quirk of eyebrow would have gone unnoticed had Rankei not been inspecting him. "-on?"
The room fell silent after his belatedly ended question. Kantai coughed. "He has every right to be here, your majesty, since you've promoted him."
"Rather that promotion. You've placed me, a person with no rank, to someone straight at top," Rankei huffed. He folded his arms as though trying to make himself bigger despite the fact he was quailing inside.
Her eyes darkened and Rankei blanched at his own mouth, wishing desperately that he could retract his words that seemed to hang heavily in the air. "After what you and Shoukei have done, do you think you gone 'Oh is that right?' and think everything would be fine? I'm can't just wave my hands and make everything disappear."
Her voice fell as she continued, "I'm the Queen but even I can't do that."
"Your majesty. You did great. Rankei would just have to work hard now," Kantai chuckled. He strode towards Rankei and threw his arm around Rankei. "You would won't you?" he asked.
He questioned, but Kantai's question was not one. It was a statement and even though it was a rhetorical question, Rankei was bound to agree even if it was somewhat half-hearted.
"Anyway, as you ordered, the insurgents rose to bait and I've taken care of it. There was eight of them as reported."
"And the evidence?"
"Clear enough for the local government to judge them guilty."
She nodded. "I want to see Shoukei when you see her."
Kantai nodded and ushered Rankei out before he could say something else that he would once again regret. Once they were out of the forbidding room, Rankei gulped large breaths. "I thought she was going to kill me!"
Kantai 's lips twitched at his statement before sharing a glance with Koshou. "She almost had to. Since you are her adopted son and Shoukei was from her inner circle, the ministers had pressured her into executing you and Shoukei."
Shoukei and Suzu was waiting at the end of the covered walkway. The empty hallways of the inner palace made it ideal for quick conferring as they walked towards the more populated areas. "She had us running ragged looking for evidence to acquit your charges. I even became Choushi just so I get enough authority to push my way through." Suzu gestured wildly at her minister outfit. "I'll be rather glad when Sekki takes over. I'd much rather be a palace maid, thank you." She smirked at Rankei with an all-knowing look in her eyes. "No more Choushi-sama, please sign this! Choushi-sama, so and so is waiting for you in the conference hall. Choushi-sama please read this, we need this urgently."
"I don't get it though," Shoukei said. "What exactly did you find? And how."
"Well-" Kantai scratched his ear absentmindedly as he searched for a proper explanation. "First of all, I was able to witness before the battle and the leadership which helped to cement Rankei's position. He passively encouraged people to not revolt and in the end, those that came to the palace games were people who believed strongly in what they were doing that no one could dissuade them otherwise if they tried. Trust me, I tried. But for Shoukei, it was a lot harder."
"Almost impossible if I'd say," Suzu giggled. "Yoko got mad at government office down below, but she couldn't express it without giving away that she was the queen. So she made me Choushi and made me force them to do the whole trial. Then I got my lackeys to find evidence – real concrete evidence mind you, to force them to write how you were undoubtedly working for the queen."
"Like how you were screaming for Yoko when you were in jail. I had all the twenty jailers and guards attest to them. And how cared for and defended Yoko. And the notes!" Suzu motioned. "Sekki cracked all the notes to prove that you were working to undermine the insurgents."
Kantai nodded, "So was her majesty. She said that she should remain as Choushi. But in order to emphasise that you were indeed working for the Queen, she had to give you ranks. Which means, you, Shoushiba, will be taking over the morning trainings from now on."
Suzu made at face at Kantai. "Choushi-sama –" she whined in a sing song manner before they broke out in laugher.
"That reminds me, her majesty wants to see you, Shoukei."
Yoko was sitting in the same position when Shoukei entered the room. Lost in her thoughts, she had not notice Shoukei stand there quietly. Shoukei watched her, not knowing what to say. There were many things she could say, but somehow they seemed inappropriate. She could almost guess the thoughts that flickered through Yoko's mind by just watching her face. She always told Yoko that she had a very expression face. Yoko's rosebud lips were pressed into a thin line, her eyes were narrowed with her eyebrows knotting.
"You're not a terrible queen!" she exclaimed, before quickly clapping her hands over her mouth in horror. She had not meant to say that but regardless, it had broken Yoko out of her trance. She turned to Shoukei who stood there, horrified and uncertain how to react.
"You don't think I'm a terrible Queen?"
Shoukei shrugged. "You'd know it yourself. You've seen down below. Twenty years ago, they barely had money to feed themselves. Now they even had silk as their curtains. It might be third grade silk, but it's still silk."
Yoko seemed to struggle with herself at Shoukei's statement. Shoukei was truly a princess at the core to have even noticed the grade of silk. Unable to suppress it, Yoko chuckled quietly at her statement.
"You laughed, so I've succeeded." Shoukei beamed, finally moving forward to sit in front of Yoko. "It doesn't make my statement any less false though. You know it's the truth. We had a relatively stable government so far. With the exclusion of the most recent rebellion, which by the way, what are the historians calling it?"
"The false rebellion."
"False rebellion. Rather ironic. I mean- how is a rebellion, false?" she trailed off, muttering to herself.
"What do you think about Mai?"
"Mai?" Shoukei whipped her head up."You mean Mai Tokuhoushi? You met him?"
"So you know?" Shoukei asked in a strangled voice at Yoko's look that she knew all too well. "Then what are you going to do about him?"
"Mai or the murderer?" Yoko bent down, focusing on that strange spot on her hand. "Shouryu was informed and has dealt with the murderer. As for Mai-"
"En-ou? The murderer was from En?"
"You didn't know?"
"No. I had guessed that it was Ryouryu but I didn't expect him to be from En. Then that man that was executed-" Shoukei paled remembering how terrible the wounds were on the man. She had asked En-ou why a prisoner was mistreated so terribly. He merely shook his head.
"Did you know for a long time?"
"No," Shoukei replied in a small voice. "I found out when I was tracing the routes. That was when I met Mai. He knew I worked for you. We had an argument over which way was the best way to resolve it but before either of us could decide, Jinhaku had captured you and both of us scrambled to save you."
"So that's what happened."
"You don't believe me?"
"I just wondered why you didn't tell this to me earlier when you were with me in Bun province."
"I wanted to! But Jinhaku's men were breathing down my neck that I couldn't say anything without risking them overhearing it. Not to mention you disappeared to that minister's mansion without consulting me! All those evidence you found about toki smuggling, who do you think brought it to your attention?"
"And Mai? You didn't answer my question. What do you think of him?"
"Mai? He's- a man of integrity but for someone who says he was tired of caring of kingly matters, he cared an awful a lot for this matter."
"Why? What about him? And why are you wearing formal wear? You hate it."
"We had executions for the men who rebelled. I thought the least I could do as the part of the Queen was to wear formal wear to their executions."
"So that's why you had Kei Taiho stay in En! You're practically taking a leaf off Tai-ou!"
"She's sort of mourning for them by wearing formal wear. The executions were two weeks ago," Maito said, cocking a head at Yoko. "I told her that she need not feel sort for them. They knew the weight of their crimes. They had accepted it."
"It doesn't make it feel any better," Yoko snapped back.
"You're here! Why?! What about Satouku?"
"It's not called Satouku. It's called Hetaito," Maito said flatly.
"Black blade, what a cliché name."
"I didn't pick it. It crumbled anyway. Most of the people were arrested for rebellion."
"Then what's going to happen to you?"
"Her majesty insisted I start a new network and when I've finished that and groomed a proper successor, if I still wanted to become mortal again, she would give it to me."
"Oh? What are you going to call it?"
"Heitaito the second, of course. What else would you call a shadow organization?"
"We'll call it Koukushin," Yoko answered before either of them could continue bickering.
"No," Yoko smiled. "Kouku as in in hope."
"In hopes of peace. That's a nice name."
"It's a good name," Mai agreed.
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