Burning skies, Burning hope

The Problem

When Yoko was shaken away, her body leapt into awareness. Her body unfortunately did not include her eyelids and so while her hands hurried to prepare to leave, her eyelids were still heavy with sleep. Yoko felt the large warm hands gently grab her shoulders and steer her towards the delicious smells. She sat there, spoon in hand, bowl in front for what must have been minutes before her eyelids finally roused. That was when she realized she surrounded by two men. Their faces were wide with amusement and posed no threat beyond hurting her pride.

"Rishou, stop laughing and help out," Jinhaku called out. The burly man hurried to obey though he looked back with a mischievous grin. "Shinzou, you too."

Were they coming along? Yoko was certain that she had hinted that she wanted to be discrete. She watched the duo as they bustled with loading packages onto the kijuu. They were anything but discrete. She wondered if it were better that she just left. Surely she did not really need any help.

"Master," the tiniest voice said from under her feet. This time it was not Hankyo but Hyouki.

Her eyes flickered anxiously to group of men. None of them had noticed it. She did not expect them to, but she had to be careful. Bending low over her porridge she whispered, "Yes."

"Taiho is furious. He says to return or he will come down to fetch you himself."

"Tell him if he does that, it'll not only endanger the operation but also may cause my death."

She could hear the pause in Hyouki's replies as he tried to ascertain the information that she had just given him.

"Master-" There was a quiet plead in his voice. It was unusual to hear such from the shirei. Keiki must be beyond furious for the shirei to be nervous on returning without completing their task.


She turned back to watch the group. Shinzou slid onto the bench in front of her. He had a goofy grin on him that reminded Yoko strongly of Mickey Mouse.

"Hello!" He exclaimed. "So I heard that you are going to resolve that issue in that province. Were you the one who read the report about it or were you the one who received orders about it?"

Yoko looked at him puzzled before glancing at Jinhaku.

"Don't worry! This place is safe from spies. This is the back end dining room. We have two dining rooms. The one where normal guests stay and eat and this. Even the rooms are separated. There are many twists and doors to go through before you find this. Even then, we don't get many guests."

"How many people are there in this organization?"

"Oh! There's about –"

"We are ready to leave," Jinhaku's words slid through Shinzou's. The last man of the group stood patiently beside his tenba. His face held a disinterest look, but his eyes held a quiet alertness and displeasure at Shinzou.

Clearly the number and perhaps the name of the organization was a secret. In that case, Satouku must have been either a secret code or an entry code. Yoko's mind whirled with possibilities. Ever since she had ascended, she had considered making such an organization. It would help nip corruption in the bud but the question on how to make sure this organization would not be corrupted. Such questions had plagued her when she thought about it and the more she thought about it, the harder the system required became. It seemed all too neatly that one such system had already existed from the previous king. At least Tatsu-Ou had been a great king, besides doing some maintenance on the systems he had put in place, Yoko might just be able to use it altogether. Upon thinking this, Yoko felt she was bursting with joy.

She schooled her face to the impassive face, her mind returning to the situation at hand. There were four kijuu including hers. Four, the exact number of people in this room.

"Are they coming as well?"

Jinhaku nodded. "But separately." He added before Yoko could ask. He swung onto his beast. His face said nothing but he gazed at her expectantly. Yoko raised an eyebrow as she motioned at her dishes. "Someone will get it."

As she mounted Houto, Yoko could not help but wish for Kantai. She was used to his easy going silence. Travelling with Jinhaku would probably be anything but easy going. No use wishing for something she could not have. The reasons she had given Kantai were valid and highly probable. Still fresh from the rebellion at Takuhou, they knew what was at risk here should she fail.

The dining room was built oddly. For starters, the kijuu were packed and mounted then travelled out to the city from the dining room. They travelled through some rooms that was equally winding before they finally burst into the dazing sunlight. Much thought had been put into the architecture of the building. It looked like a normal inn from outside, but it had been merged with the three stores surrounding it. Out of those three stores, two of them had their own fronts. One sold basic groceries while the other sold plain weapons. Like the inn, nothing too fanciful to attract attention. The third store was a stable. It made perfect sense for the door from the hidden interior connected to the stable as a walkthrough. This made people walking out on their kijuu an acceptable sight.

Much like the pace Yoko had travelled in to arrive in Gyouten, they travelled hard to arrive quickly at Bu Province. It was punishing pace given that they had to travel by land in order not to stand out. It was almost gate closing time when they reached the first major city in Bu Province.

Yoko turned to speak to Jinhaku, only to realize that the other three had already scattered. Though they were close by, it seemed that they were travelling separate.

"Jinhaku," she grabbed his arm, forcing him to move a pace slower. "I will apologize in advance if we end up in the jail. We'll probably end up there sooner or later."

"I'm assuming it might be part of the mission."

Yoko nodded. It had been two weeks ago when she had received the first report from Saibou. A bunch of merchants were moving Touki. Not only were they unlicensed, they were in great bulks distributed into small packages. It reminded her strongly of the rebellion in Takuhou, so she paid extra attention to it. There seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary. How many more corrupted ministers were there? Were they hiding in Bu Province? Yoko could not find any answer in any of the reports. After much deliberation, she decided to send Sekki to sound it out. Sekki had a knack of finding the true situation. At that point of time, sending Sekki had been the best bet. The regular reports from Sekki had given her a more realistic view of what was happening down there and it not good. It was salvageable then. When the reports ceased, she knew something had happened. The question was not what had happened; the question was how to deal with it. To send Kantai and a platoon secretly or not was much too conspicuous in the Kinpa Palace where gossip moved faster than laws and plans. The only choice was to go down herself. Now she was down in Bu Province to do with two things: save Sekki and eliminate the instigators.

The large stone walls loomed ahead. White stone with dark green tiles, thick and large wooden doors, just seeing them made Yoko feel apprehensive. Yoko had considered what she had to do. Finding the instigators were important after all if Sekki had to be taken out, then it may well be that he was carrying some kind of important knowledge. The Suiguutou had shown her that Sekki was well, albeit filthy. Hankyo had confirmed that he was alive though he was not able to speak with Sekki due to the constant surveillance. Yoko had insisted the shirei not to make his presence known. Being from only the Greater Learning institute, Sekki's alliance with her was not known. That was the reason why she had picked him. Had it been any other minister, she could have been connected too easily.

Pulling from her breast pocket, Yoko showed her travel pass to the guard. She had taken lengths to secretly find a low ranking stamped travel pass to avoid any possible suspicions. The guard gazed over it briefly and motioned her through.

"It's busier than I expected it to be in Bakushou," Yoko said. Things looked fairly prosperous even compared to Gyouten. Bearing in mind that Bu Province was on the outer edges of Kei and the portion closest to the East, she had expected more damage inflicted cities even if it was a major city like Bakushou.

"Bu Province is the wealthiest among all the provinces," whispered Jinhaku. He flicked his pale green hair from his eyes, his eyes scanning the crowd as he spoke, "Ministers invested their money into here." Evidently it was something that both Sekki and Yoko had not picked up.


He shook his head. "Putting money here is considered the safest investment for those who do not own fields."

Safest investment? That sounded a whole lot like how the Hourai people thought. She shook her head. The work cut out for her was a lot bigger than she imagined.

Koshou stood stiffly outside Yoko's office doors. The three retainers and he wore sour faces. There was a reason for those sour faces. A few reasons in fact. The first and foremost was because the current reason on why no one could enter the study was because the Queen was resting and they had been yelled at for some desperate minister forcing his way through. They allowed the person asking permission to enter to guess which minister that must have been without letting on any names before the person would scuttle away to bring news of some minister that had fallen out of the Queen's grace. The second reason was due to the fact that they did in fact had been scolded. Just that it was the Taiho that had scolded them in his quiet fury.

The four of them were in agreement that the Taiho's quiet fury was more frightening that Shoukei's loud anger. Yoko's anger was a mix but what type of anger she had was hardly important. To begin with, Yoko rarely lost her temper. Therefore at any point of time when Yoko was angry, it meant that she was extremely angry.

Not to digress, the weather was a particularly fine weather to stand outside an empty room and sulk. Koshou's attention wandered away as the small songbird perched on a nearby branch and erupted in song. Toshou signalled to them upon seeing the approaching kirin. He hurried forward to assist the kirin with the pile of documents.

In Yoko's study, the previously empty table was now stacked with piles of documents. That was two week's worth of documents. Soon Keiki would have to make the trip to his master carrying the documents and possibly even her seal. That day when Keiki found out that she had slipped out at night to descend the mountain, he had been mixed with both worry and angry. Since then he had sent Hyouki to assist her and inform him of what was happening. Hyouki had obeyed like all shirei do and for the first week, he had returned with regular reports. It seemed that his master was caught in some terrible mess that steadily getting from bad to worse. Now it had been a week since Hyouki's last report. Keiki could feel his gut curl in anxiety.


Keiki looked up from the pile of documents. Had he been so preoccupied that he had not heard Koshou call? His delicate eyebrows knotted peevishly.

"Enki is here."

Sure enough, in a distance Keiki could see the bright gold hair. Enki was strolling down the long hallways, carrying a package in his hands.

"What is that?" Keiki ask when Enki dropped it into his arms. He held it awkwardly, the way a man would when he held his first born for the first time.

"A gift of some sorts," he replied nonchalantly. Looking around, he noticed that while stone-face was here, red head was not. "Where's Yoko?"

Separated by two wooden doors and a hallway, the two figures snoozed in the darkness. Silence had fallen onto the bustling town as the night grew longer. All was quiet, save for the gong as the time watcher walked by.

"Master," a small whisper came from the shadows.

Her eyes snapped open as though she had been waiting for that very whisper. "Speak."

"The weapons landed in Jouzou city. They were separated into two packages. One to the provincial capital, Tougoku and the other much further east, Mensou."

Yoko guessed as much. It would have been easier for her to track the money for it would lead with much certainty to the source. Yet due to the fact that there had been too much money to track, she decided to follow the weapons. Out of five trips, one would certainly go to Tougoku but the other always changed. The other must be a decoy while the real receiver was Tougoku.

She lay there in the darkness, not moving the slightest, just thinking. Her actions were beginning to rouse attention. Not to mention due to that, the frequency of trips were increasing.

"What do you think?" she finally said. She knew the shirei was still there, waiting for her to dismiss him. Though they spoke little, they often had a different insight to the situation. They were after all, looking in from outside the box and they were not human to being with.

"You'll have to make a move soon. Only difference in timing is whether the first move was made by you or them."

It was pretty much the same idea. "Thank you and good job, Hankyo."

Yoko had an inkling that she might have been watched. One of the two shirei would have been able to confirm her suspicions. But with Hankyo busy tracking the real importers in Tougoku and Hyouki busy tracking exports, she could hardly ask them. She considered it for a moment. There was the issue of saving Sekki as well.

"Hankyo. Is there anyone watching Jinhaku and me?"

"Yes. Just one. Would you like me take him out?"

"Yes, but don't kill. Make it look like an accident that is unable to return to surveillance and unable to send word to whomever he works for that he cannot." Yoko felt her shadow lighten as he whisked off to do as she commanded.

"It's been done," he replied, not a moment too soon.

"Is he hurt bad?"

"No, just a lump on his head. He fell into the thick bushes beneath the tree and will not be discovered by anyone until morning."

She swung from her bed, her legs touching the chilled wooden floors. Quickly she pulled on her soft leather boots. Her sword made a faint clang as she swung it over her back. She strode quietly but hurriedly across the hallway and knocked a silent knock on the opposite room. There was a shuffle of cloths before the low voice replied, "Yes."

"We're leaving."

The door swung open to reveal a fully dressed Jinhaku. His luminous green hair was carefully hidden under a dark bandanna. Ready in an instant, Yoko could not help but admire him. He nodded. His grey eyes showed no hesitation or confusion despite the fact that Yoko had not offered any answers. Thrusting the other mask towards Jinhaku, she pulled a mask over her face. They leapt down from their second storey room. She tumbled into a soft roll as Joyu bent her body to cushion itself. They sought the shadows, moving from shadow to shadow. Slowly but steadily, they picked their way across the town.

Yoko aided by Joyu made no noise as she leapt from shadow to shadow, rooftop to rooftop. She was not surprised that Jinhaku was capable of such feat. If she had not gotten it wrong, the Satouku organization was more than just spying. Perhaps even assassinations. The speed that he had dressed in and the readiness without any much knowledge probably showed more than he let on. He was a warrior, ready to obey without question.

Yoko stopped just before the jail house to contemplate on how they were going about breaking in. Though Hokyuu was just a city, it was the second biggest in Bu Province. They did not joke about the jail. Surrounded by tall walls and manned by archers, there was no easy way of getting in without being noticed.

"Here," came the quietest whisper beneath her feet. Yoko leapt. Guided by Hankyo and aided by Joyu, she made her way to a small man hole within a sleeping house. The cover had been loosened by Hankyo and she shimmered her way down.

Behind her, Jinhaku was keeping up. He had not expected her to be able to move so stealthily. He had seen her as a minister and perhaps a soldier due to the fighting skills she had revealed in their first meeting. Soldiers were never good with stealth work. So when she showed that not only could she fight and do investigative work but also move silently, evading even the night watchers, he was more than surprised. He crouched, mimicking her actions as they began to approach a door in the middle of the drain. Either they had been lucky that all the drains and doors were left open or something out there was helping them. A cold shiver travelled down his spine as that popped into his head. If there was something out there helping them, then he did not want to know anything about it.

It was a moment's notice that he noticed the soft landing of feet behind him. He lunged backward, slipping deftly through the man's legs. Knife in hand, he slashed the right ankle before dodging the man's sword. The man's right leg dipped as his ankle tried to support his weight. The attacker was no fool, rather than forcing his ankle to support the weight, he sank on his knee, using it as a pivotal point. Sadly, between the attacker and Jinhaku, his speed was incomparable to Jinhaku. Before he had been managed to lunge at Jinhaku, Jinhaku had appeared behind, readying his blade to slash his throat.

"Don't kill," hissed Yoko urgently. If they killed any guards here, then they would be hunted down as murderers. Things would be a lot worse for them.

Yoko's warning, however, came a little too late. The attacker collapsed to the floor, hands clawing at his throat, desperate to stop the bleeding, then motionless. Yoko swore inaudibly. There was nothing she could do but hurry on. Time was wasting.

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