he same thought ran through the heads of everyone in the palace: It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.
Looking down at the Rokusui River winding below Ganboku Palace, the marshes beyond the far banks had become a forest of Imperial banners.
Atsuyu had long stood as the pillar of Gen Province. With the Kingdom of En ravaged and left desolate, the people and land of Gen remained the calm at the eye of the storm. Gen Province alone could not stop the inexorable downward slide or withstand all the waves of destruction washing upon its shores. But compared to the other provinces, its decline was far less severe.
Atsuyu fought the looming destruction. As crops failed and populations plummeted in other provinces and as anarchy displaced law and order, Gen alone had managed to turn back the tide.
The calamities continued and youma rampaged across the countryside. Refugees streaming through Gen, fleeing to other provinces, all said the same thing: Gen was a blessed land. Ganboku was like a dream.
Then a new emperor ascended to the throne and the kingdom began to recover, Gen had been left behind. Everywhere else, the farms and fields slowly greened, populations and harvests increased. The differences with the other provinces disappeared. Gen was no longer a place travelers singled out for praise.
By all rights, a ten-fold improvement elsewhere should have translated into a hundred-fold improvement in Gen. Surely a future full of unimaginable wealth awaited them.
The reality was far different.
The first priority of the Imperial Government was bringing all the provinces up to the same level. This imperative was deeply resented by the people of Gen. They believed that had the emperor not deprived Gen of sovereign rule, it would have flourished under Atsuyu’s rule.
“How did things come to this?” grumbled a soldier perched on the watchtower at the third station on Ganboku Mountain.
His fellow guardsmen had nothing to say in reply.
“Shouldn’t the secretary’s actions have brought self-rule and prosperity back to Gen by now?”
Correct the mistakes of the emperor, secure sovereignty for the provinces, take the initiative in the revival of the kingdom, and they would thank Gen. Not a few imagined that, indebted to them, the province lords and the people would herald Gen as the linchpin holding the kingdom together.
But open up that can of worms—
“We’re a bunch of rebels. These days, all you heard are people carping at us for trying to usurp the throne.”
The Imperial Army gathered on the far banks of the Rokusui had reached 30,000. The citizens of Gen continued to march toward Ganboku to join them. There was no telling how large their numbers would swell before the fighting began. It hardly mattered at this point, though. The forces of the Imperial Army already outstripped those of the Gen provincial guard.
Quietly, furtively, soldiers of the provincial guard were abandoning their posts. Desertions increased by the day, especially among the conscripts. Keep drafting civilians to fill the ranks, and in a few more days there wouldn’t be any civilians left. And not a few of those running away ran straight toward the Imperial banners.
“There’s this rumor going around,” said another guard. “A week ago, the governor general died.”
“Yeah, word is she tried to free the Taiho and sacrificed her life in the attempt.”
“They say the secretary attacked the Taiho in a rage, knowing he was in a no-win situation, and governor general died protecting him.”
“Rubbish. He’d never do something like that.”
“Yeah, probably not. Still, rumors are everywhere. The thing is, nobody would have listened to them before. That’s gotta send a chill down your spine.”
They fell in a taut silence. A moment later, as if in concert, all eyes returned to the Imperial Army arrayed below.
One of them finally voiced the question on all of their minds: “Why aren’t they attacking?
“What’s going on? They haven’t taken one step across the Rokusui.” Atsuyu stood on the balcony and gazed down at the river. “Are they waiting for more people to come to them? They’re building an army of rank amateurs. They’ll simply get in the way of the regular soldiers.”
Hakutaku said with dubious expression his own, “They’ve recruited 20,000 along the way and are putting them to work sandbagging the riverbanks.”
“They’re building up the levees. These so-called soldiers don’t have any weaponry worth mentioning. They must have intended from the start to deploy them as laborers.”
“Now they get around to building levees? Are they trying to curry favor with us?”
“We can only hope that’s what they’re doing. The Imperial Army is at work on the far banks of the Rokusui from Shin’eki downstream to Sugo.”
“You don’t mean—they’re diverting the river?”
Atsuyu furrowed his brows. The Rokusui wound around Ganboku like a snake. For a long while now the levees kept the river inside its banks. Atsuyu had secretly had additional work done on the embankments, but they couldn’t build the levees high enough if the river was dammed downstream.
With the city situated in the lowlands, flooding became a real possibility. The far banks were lower, meaning that if it overtopped its banks, the river would flow away from Ganboku. If the far banks were built higher, the river would flow into Ganboku.
But extending the banks in one fell swoop was no mean feat. Ten thousand getting the job done was a stretch at best. But with twenty thousand on hand—
“In a siege, how many soldiers could the palace accommodate?”
The volume of water unleashed during the rainy season was significant. If not properly diverted, the fields around Ganboku being readied for battle would flood. The surging water might even reach the farmlands just outside Ganboku. Or at the very worst, inundate the base of Ganboku Mountain itself.
“Provisioning our forces is the more pressing problem.”
Stores inside the palace running out. The harvest notwithstanding, Gen Province had not produced a surplus.
Bitter self-recriminations colored Hakutaku’s voice. “This uprising began with every expectation of Kou Province entering the fray and resolving the conflict with a brief but decisive battle. If Kou Province doesn’t act, we will face the end alone, making a long struggle inevitable. Except we haven’t the supplies to support a long conflict.”
“Then we have no choice but to impose an emergency tax on the nearby farms. Fortunately, the harvest just ended.”
Hakutaku grimaced. “Are you are proposing to expropriate what hasn’t already been taxed away? What they’ve put aside in their root cellars and in the village storehouses has to last them the rest of the year.”
Atsuyu cast a cool glance down at Hakutaku. “Are you asking the provincial guard to starve?”
Hakutaku returned the look uncowed. His temper was up. After being bathed in Ribi’s blood, Rokuta still hadn’t regained consciousness. That was only the beginning of the troubles that had betrayed every hope Gen once held of holding the high moral ground.
“In the first place, whatever levy is imposed now won’t be in time. And whatever stores we could collect, how long could we expect them to last?”
“Then get what you can and worry about the rest later.” Atsuyu turned to the ministers hovering nearby. “Those levees must not be built. Send a division of the provincial guard to the Rokusui.”
“Hold on,” the Defense Minister said with a frown of concern. “The provincial guard is already outnumbered by the Imperial Army. Are you telling us to divide our forces even further?”
“Then send the entire army.”
Madness, the Defense Minister grumbled to himself. He said aloud, “Please keep in the mind the number of our soldiers . The Imperial Army already has three times as many. Without enough reserves to turn back an assault on the palace, we have no chance of prevailing.”
“I am perfectly aware of that!” Atsuyu shot back. “When the rains start, dispatch an elite force and have them break down the levees on the opposite back upstream from Ganboku.”
Hakutaku grew all the more livid. “What are you saying!”
“It’s the only recourse we’ve got!” Atsuyu shouted back. “Cut the levees above Ganboku and divert the river to Shin’eki. If you’ve got any better ideas, now would be a good time to speak up!”
Atsuyu’s nerves were no less on edge. The swelling ranks of the Imperial Army, the betrayal by Kou Province, the unconscious Taiho—everything was conspiring against him. The ground was crumbling beneath his feet.
“The rainy season is coming. Don’t even think it.”
“That’s why the levees must be cut! After the rains start will be too late. With the far banks built up, a dam downstream would back water into Ganboku.”
“You are willing to flood Shin’eki for the good of Ganboku? The provincial palace is a mountain. If Ganboku floods, at worst we’ll get our feet wet. I’m begging you, put such thoughts out of your mind.”
“We are out of options. Do as I’ve ordered!”