Hills of Silver Ruins

Chapter 5

The new Tai new emperor was enthroned in the thirty-third year and sixth intercalary month of the Wagen era.

After Emperor Kyou died, the throne sat empty for eleven years until the accession of Saku Gyousou, formerly a general in the Palace Guard. He was chosen by Taiki, Tai’s Black Kirin. Not six months passed after his formal enthronement when the curtain closed on the dynasty of the new emperor.

The stage upon which these events took place was Bun Province, located in the north of the Kingdom of Tai.

Bun was a province marked by its harsh weather. All of the northern territories of Tai shared a similar cold climate. Though the snows were never that heavy, winters in Bun Province were widely known for the bitter cold. Spring came late. Summers were dry. The land was suited for neither farming or forestry. Most of its citizens earned a living in the mines.

The mines of Bun Province had established a reputation for gemstone production in Tai and throughout the known world. Though on a smaller scale, the region was additionally endowed with high grade iron ore deposits, along with gold, silver, and gemstone “fountains.”

Unlike traditional mines, the water bubbling out of these springs was the source of the ore. The mineral water that welled up naturally concentrated the basic elements of gold and silver and precious stones in underground deposits. While those veins could be mined, the springs themselves refined the ore as well.

A mineral nucleus submerged in the water yielded a high purity nodule, though the entire process took a long time. Located south of You Mountain, Kan’you Mountain was said to be home to the oldest and largest gemstone fountains in Tai.

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As a matter of law, the mines were owned by the state and administered by government officials. As a matter of fact, merchants ran the day-to-day operations. The work of prospecting for deposits, digging mine shafts, and extracting the minerals was further divvied up and delegated to specialists in the specific trades.

Prospecting for ore beds and fountains in particular attracted a large number of businesses. The result was a haphazard excavation of the mountain. The tunnelers complained at length about this seat-of-the-pants approach. The lack of any rhyme or reason when digging test pits wasted their time and created risky working conditions.

The miners, in turn, complained about the tunnelers. Delays in tunnel construction ate away at their earnings. The haulers carped constantly about the miners. If the miners didn’t work, there was no ore to move. The haulers didn’t earn anything standing around doing nothing. So the haulers badgered the miners to hurry up and get on with the digging.

On the other hand, no matter how hard the miners worked, if the ore didn’t ship, the best of their efforts went for naught. Thus the miners hounded the haulers. Going on day and night, the incessant bickering gave rise to local outlaws and their land gangs, who stepped in to settle the disputes with their fists.

The land gangs reconciled the various demands and arrived at a compromise. If words didn’t do the trick, they were not above more physical forms of persuasion. Taking charge to keep things running smoothly, they preserved order on the mountain, and in the end, assumed control of the mountain altogether.

Consequently, an entire region of Bun Province could not be administered without the power and influence of the land gangs.

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The outlaws grew all the more arrogant in their actions. In response, on behalf of the people—on behalf of their own political prerogatives—the government strengthened its regulatory controls. To no one’s surprise, the land gangs fought back. The collision of competing interests meant the simmering war between the government and the gangs showed no signs of petering out.

This state of affairs was just as true six years ago. In Koushi year two, shortly after the first New Year since Gyousou’s enthronement, rebel land gangs occupied the town of Kohaku in the south of Bun Province.

The Imperial Army marched forth to subjugate the revolt. At the same time, insurrections broke out in districts hither and yon, and grew in size and severity. Before long, all of Bun Province had descended into rebellion. The chaos spread like a wildfire, finally reached the emperor himself, and swallowed him up.

In the second year and third month of Koushi, reports about Gyousou in Bun Province ceased. At the same time, Taiki, the Saiho, vanished from the Imperial Palace. Those two events occurred six years ago. In Tai, that was the sum of what anybody knew about them.

Kouryou had been stationed in Bun Province at the time. A regimental commander of twenty-five hundred soldiers, he’d been dispatched to Bun Province with the Palace Guard of the Center to put down the revolt. Together with the Bun Provincial Guard, they were to subjugate the land gangs inciting the violence, liberate the occupied cities, and render aid to citizens caught up in the melee.

Those were the orders they’d been given. At the time, it seemed a simple task. When they departed the capital, the land gangs were said to number no more than five hundred. Even granting them the advantage of operating on their home ground, such a force hardly presented a serious obstacle to the full 12,500 soldier fighting strength of the entire Palace Guard.

And that did not even include the Bun Provincial Guard.

Such was the mismatch that sending an entire army seemed ridiculous overkill. But when Gyousou ordered them to suppress the rebellion, he also wished to communicate to the people of Tai that the kingdom and all its might would always stand ready to protect them.

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Bun Province had long suffered under the tyrannical rule of the land gangs. The previous province lord was even more unscrupulous than the gangs, and disputes between them over their competing rights and interests continued apace. When the province traded blows with the land gangs about who was or ought to be in charge, ordinary people paid the price.

With both sides hoarding wealth, ignoring the rule of law, carrying on like despots and never paying the price, minor quarrels often escalated into full blown riots. The people of Bun Province endured it the best they could.

The enthronement of Gyousou meant that the arbitrary rule of the province lords would be held in check and the havoc incited by the land gangs brought under control. The new emperor of Tai would not condone such actions. The mighty armies of the Palace Guard would prove as much to the people of Bun Province. The Palace Guard of the Center was dispatched to achieve that end.

Nevertheless, Kouryou did not prevail and neither did his fellow commanders. As if the strategy had been in the cards from the start, the insurrections fomented by the land gangs linked up one by one and the scale of the rebellion grew to massive proportions.

As soon as they put out the flames in one location, another fire broke out elsewhere. By the time that one was extinguished, bigger conflagrations erupted elsewhere. The insurgent groups conspired to constantly expand the scale of the conflict.

These incidents were not so easily contained as a local riot, and were beginning to look like they’d been planned from the start as a coup d’état. In answer to these suspicions, another army was dispatched from the capital, with Gyousou himself leading a contingent of the Palace Guard.

Under ordinary circumstances, an emperor never fought on the front lines. But the expanding battlefield and Gyousou’s deep connection to the city of Tetsui, now drawn into the maelstrom, compelled him to become personally involved in the fighting.

Gyousou set off with the specific intent of defending Tetsui from the predations of the land gangs and rescuing the city from the ravages of war. Then suddenly he disappeared.

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Against all expectations, the Imperial Army was ready to abandon the field. The search for Gyousou divided their time and resources. The war with the leading land gangs had ground to a statement. A fresh army from Kouki was thrown into the fray and finally managed to bring the situation under control. But the chaotic conditions on the ground showed no signs of abating.

In the middle of these roiling crises, a messenger bird arrived in camp. Stationed in Jou Province and confronting similar insurrectionists, General Risai of the Sui Provincial Guard reported that Asen had taken up arms against the emperor.

Once Kouryou recovered from his initial shock and turned this new information over in his mind, the state of affairs became much clearer. He’d believed for some time that the discord was spreading in a calculated manner. Now he had no choice but conclude that it’d been planned that way all along.

The strategy from the start was to bog down Kouryou and the Imperial Army in Bun Province, lay siege to Tetsui, and coax Gyousou out of the Imperial Palace.

That strategy had been executed to perfection, General Eishou bitterly concluded. He was Kouryou’s superior officer in the Palace Guard of the Center. When the rebellion broke out in Bun Province, Asen was likely the one pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Entice the Imperial Army under Gyousou’s command out of the capital, exploit the gaps in its defenses, and snatch away the throne. The only force left in Kouki to strike at Asen was a single army under the command of General Ganchou. In the time it’d take Kouryou and his allies to return to Kouki, retaking the already impregnable capital would become well-nigh impossible.

Hardly any time had passed since news of Asen’s betrayal reached them but a communiqué arrived from the capital stating that Risai had turned traitor. She had purportedly assassinated Gyousou in a plot to usurp the throne.

The machinations of the conspiracy were suddenly obvious. If they fell in line behind Asen and joined in the reprisals against Risai, all would be well. If not, they’d be labeled traitors too. Follow Asen or stand with Risai and become a hunted rebel. With that decision hanging over their heads, Eishou summoned all of the ranked officers to the main encampment and wasted no time mincing words.

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“I plan to run away.”

“Eishou-sama!”

“I will flee to the hills and find some hole in the wall to hide in. The rest of you may do whatever you feel is right.” Eishou looked back at Kouryou and the rest of his stunned audience. His mouth twisted into a cynical smile. “I consider this the only viable option left on the table. I am not about to take my marching orders from Asen. If that makes me a rebel, so be it. I shall go on the lam.”

“You won’t fight?”

And strike back at Asen, the real usurper? A natural and rational response. Eishou not only had Kouryou and the rest of his regimental commanders at his disposal, but the Sou Provincial Guard currently stationed in Bun Province, as well as the troops led by General Gashin.

“I won’t fight. The White Pheasant has not fallen from its perch.”

Risai had said as much in her report. The White Pheasant was the kingdom’s sacred bird. It sang once to proclaim the enthronement of the emperor, sang once to proclaim his demise, and then expired. Reports that the White Pheasant had sung of Gyousou’s death were, according to Risai, lies spread by Asen. The bird very much still lived.

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Eishou declared with a cold smile, “If His Highness is not dead, then battles await us in the future. Not battles resisting Asen now, but the coming war between Asen and His Highness. If we cannot rouse ourselves to action when that moment comes, then we have no value serving Gyousou-sama. We run and we lie low so when Gyousou-sama returns, we can rise up and flock to his standard. What the rest of you do is your own business.”

Eishou turned his attention to the rest of the encampment. “I lack the resources to take care of you out of my own pocket. You can abandon the Imperial Army and go into hiding. Or you can follow Asen. The choice is yours. However—”

Eishou indicated the map of Tetsui and Rin’u and the surrounding areas spread out on the table. The map depicted in great detail the camps of their enemies and allies, the battlefields, and the topography of the region.

“If, at a future date, you wish to labor on behalf of Gyousou-sama, add your signature here as a solemn vow to stand by him when he returns. This is no mere pledge. I mean the same way the kirin swears fealty to the emperor, you promise to keep your word no matter the cost.”

He tossed the map to the soldiers, who raised their voices in assent. Somewhere amidst the geographical features drawn on the sheet of parchment, their emperor had disappeared without a word.

“You promise to shoulder the coming trials in obscurity, and when His Highness returns, rush to his side. Those who harbor no such inclination may do as they see fit. But if you choose to follow Asen, keep in mind that you may live only long enough to see the final battlefield. When the decisive war between Asen and His Highness is waged, I promise to take your heads.”

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A hard smile rose to Eishou’s face. “In truth, those who run from this commitment will hang their heads whenever they tread the road ahead, to make sure our eyes never meet. For if our eyes do meet, I will show no mercy. Those who make this pledge and cower in fear when the time comes should give no thought to scampering away but rather fall on their own swords. Because however dear their lives may be to them then, their lifespans will differ little hence.”

Kouryou had no idea how many signed their names. But so many did that both sides of the sheet were rendered black with ink. With that map in hand, Eishou truly did disappear into a hole in wall. Kouryou had heard nothing about him since, no rumors about him being arrested or executed by Asen. Given this lack of news, he must have gone underground somewhere.

Kouryou as well cast off his medals and insignias, disposed of his weapons and his armor, left Bun Province, and wandered aimlessly across the kingdom, waiting for the time to come.

“Risai-sama, I have been concerned for your well-being ever since. Search parties were organized in every province.”

Kouryou gazed at the one-armed general. At the very least, when Kouryou departed for Bun Province, she still possessed both of her arms.

Risai nodded. “As you can see, I have managed to keep drawing breath. Though not without making sacrifices along the way.”

They’d moved to a corner of the burned over ruins that had once been Fugen Temple. Where the temple once stood, only the stone foundation remained. A little way off, the courtyard was all but hidden beneath a carpet of grass, on which the wounded now lay.

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The survivors of the Taoist and Buddhist temples who attacked Risai and Taiki were being cared for by villagers who lived nearby. Based on their kijuu and attire, and the way they carried themselves, they’d jumped to the conclusion that Risai, Taiki, and Kouryou were members of a scouting party sent by Asen to hunt them down.

Those who’d collapsed here and there in the meadow, together with those who could move on their own, were brought to the Fugen Temple remains to rest. Messengers ran down the mountain to get help moving them back to the village. Thankfully, in the end, nobody was killed or even that badly wounded.

As part of keeping his identity hidden, Kouryou did not carry a sword. His “hidden weapons” were chiefly defensive in nature, not suited for assassination or able to inflict serious wounds on an opponent. Risai carried a sword, but having lost her dominant arm, and knowing that Taiki was nearby, she avoided dealing any lethal blows.

As a result, the melee concluded without any fatalities.

“What about your officers, Risai?”

Risai had no idea what had become of them. She’d been detained on Asen’s orders shortly after sending word of his betrayal to Bun Province and Kouki. Asen accused Risai of assassinating Gyousou. She was taken into custody while her army was en route to Shou Province to put down the rebellion there. Leaving her troops behind, she was transported to the Imperial Palace and told that the rest of her officers would follow shortly.

“I gathered that a new general was dispatched from Kouki and the army eventually proceeded to Shou Province.”

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Along the way, Risai escaped. In that instant, she was branded a traitor. After much intense discussion, her fellow officers concluded they had been sent to Shou Province to suppress the rebellion. Except it was already hard to escape the strong implication that they were being punished for being commanded by a general accused of high treason.

They had no objections about working to suppress the rebellion, and otherwise would accept whatever punishment was deemed appropriate.

No sooner had they arrived in Shou Province but the uprising was quelled. With no reason for being there, they awaited their next orders. Their next orders were to hunt down Risai and execute her. By no means convinced that Risai was capable of treason to start with, these were orders they simply could not obey.

“I heard they disbanded and dispersed in Shou Province. Many were later captured or killed.”

Risai had no idea how many and which of her officers had in fact been executed. Denied formal trials, they would have been killed upon capture, leaving behind no records and no graves. Since her escape, keeping out of sight and never staying long in one place, she had no way to investigate. All she knew was that they had refused an Imperial directive and scattered in Shou Province.

Risai had first been commissioned a general in the Shou Provincial Guard. Many of her officers were from Shou. They knew the lay of the land and had connections in the region. Surely they could find shelter and keep safely out of sight. That was the one ray of hope she clung to.

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She’d been constantly on the run ever since. Whenever she met one of her own officers or one of Gyousou’s subordinates, she struggled to find some way of striking back at Asen, but all her efforts came to naught.

Not only Risai, but many civic-minded citizens sought to dethrone Asen. However, should they draw Asen’s attention by assembling in sufficient numbers to constitute a viable force, harsh retributive measures awaited them. Asen’s retributive measures went far beyond the ordinary. Rather than spend the time trying to root them out, whole cities were destroyed root and branch.

The same fate that befell Zui’un Temple.

Reading between the lines of what Risai was saying, Kyoshi silently stepped away, shaken to the core.

The emperor had fallen in Bun Province. Then Asen occupied the vacant throne. At the time, no one outside the Imperial Palace had any reason to question this course of events. The emperor was divinely chosen. By means of the kirin, Heaven selected the best person lead the kingdom.

However, in the meantime, before the one true emperor was chosen, someone must rise to the occasion and hold the Imperial Court together in his stead.

Asen had been widely considered Gyousou’s equal since the reign of Emperor Kyou. He was treated with similar deference by the Imperial Court when Gyousou became emperor. His subordinates and courtiers held him in high esteem. That Asen should succeed Gyousou as emperor pro tempore until the accession of a new emperor struck no one as inappropriate.

However, Zui’un Temple questioned this state of affairs. As the central pillar of Taoism in the kingdom, information gathered by temples around the kingdom eventually made its way to Zui’un Temple. Moreover, being by their very nature places dedicated to the promulgation of knowledge and science, the Taoist temples had deep connections to the Ministry of Winter.

Further examination of statements from the Ministry and the temples revealed that Asen’s route to the throne was a strange one indeed.

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They first questioned whether Gyousou was actually dead. Initial reports had him being killed in Bun Province while fighting the land gangs. The surrounding circumstances were anything but clear. No one could offer a definitive account of what happened at the scene of the disaster. Even if he died in some sort of accident, no funeral had been held and there were no signs of an imperial mausoleum under construction.

Further investigations turned up not a single witness to his death. As things stood, all anyone knew for certain was that Gyousou had disappeared in the midst of the battle and no news about his fate had emerged since—facts that certainly did not justify the appointment of a provisional emperor.

The logical examination of such suspicions led to the conclusion that the chaos and confusion sown by the land gangs had been intended from the start to swallow up Gyousou. On top of that, Taiki disappeared at around the same time. It was rumored that an unusual natural disaster—a shoku—had taken place on the grounds of the Imperial Palace.

A shoku occurring in the skies above the Imperial Palace was a rare event. That it happened at the same time Gyousou disappeared made it even harder to accept as mere coincidence. No one knew Taiki’s whereabouts. And yet a provisional emperor occupied the throne and administered the Imperial Court as if the throne were vacant.

No evidence condoning such actions could be found in the Divine Decrees, nor could anyone defend them as a matter of custom or convention.

A vigorous debate about the peculiarities of the situation arose amongst the Taoist monks and priests in Ten Shire. In the end, a council of the Taoist sects and Buddhist denominations concluded with calls for a public inquiry.

They anticipated that this would bring them into conflict with the Imperial ministries Asen had at his beck and call, and would likely put them all in a tight spot.

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Beware, the sages warned, and Kyoshi concurred. After this, the kingdom will treat Zui’un Temple with cold disdain. Whatever happens from here on out, do not expect any help from them.

Based on their size, the Taoist temples received assistant from the kingdom and the provinces to support the large number of monks and priests. The likelihood of this support getting cut off was high, and provisions were likely to run short across the board. But despite whatever hardships they had to endure, the course must be corrected.

Thus spoke the sages.

The Imperial Edict came down several days later. No response to the public inquiry was forthcoming. Rather, the Edict stated that to raise any questions about the accession of the new emperor was tantamount to treason.

Zui’un Temple protested that the Edict constituted no answer. Nobody was contemplating treason. The subjects of a kingdom had every right to examine the legal and proper means by which an emperor was installed. If the provisional emperor was legitimate, then Zui’un Temple would cooperate with the government to the utmost. If not, that cooperation would be summarily withdrawn.

Retribution arrived in short order. Early in the morning on the last day of August, Kyoshi was shaken awake by a flustered colleague. Startled by the sound of his name shouted in a near panic, Kyoshi jumped to his feet.

“What’s going on?”

Novice monks in training like Kyoshi banded together to share living quarters in a detached temple structure. He was sixteen years old. He’d just come to the mountains and was still learning the ropes as a young acolyte.

Along with worshipping at the ancestral shrine morning and evening, attending to the sages and listening to their lectures, the days were taken up with any number of chores and assignments. They awoke at the same time every morning, cleaned and ritually purified their surroundings, and bedded down late at night only after they had again swept away the accumulated dust of the day.

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In every other spare minute, they might be found hurrying about chopping firewood, tending to the livestock, working in the fields, helping out in the kitchen, all the while following exacting rules of decorum and propriety. Assiduously tending to these chores was but the first step in their training. Finally back in their beds, they fell into a deep slumber until the ringing of the gong woke them from a dreamless slumber.

Nevertheless, Kyoshi never once regretted the choice he had made.

He had entered a Taoist monastery as he hoped. Born in Kou Province, Kyoshi had always longed to don the robes of the monks he observed rushing about to help those in need. He hadn’t yet completed his formal religious education, so he couldn’t wear those robes. But simply being able to call the magnificent Zui’un Temple his home and walk the grounds wrapped in the indigo blue cassock provided by the monastery made him brim with pride.

Being accepted at Zui’un Temple as a novice didn’t happen because he wished it to happen. He commenced his training at Zui’un Temple after an unexpected series of connections bore fruit, for which he was especially grateful.

Nevertheless, exhausted from his chores and duties, rousing himself from sleep before the gong rang was no easy task. Had his fellow novices not pressed him so urgently, he would have rolled over and gone back to sleep. Aroused by painful cries impossible to ignore, he jumped out of bed. Meeting him was the unnerving sight of a red glow filling the room. It didn’t come from a lantern.

Inside the dark temple quarters, other novices scrambled from the rows of beds, no less befuddled than Kyoshi as the wavering red light played across room. With a collective start, they focused their attention on the windows. A sky brighter than midday met their eyes, stained with the crimson colors of dusk and slashed with black shadows cast by the rows of tiled roofs.

A fire, was the first thought that sprang to Kyoshi’s mind. And no ordinary conflagration. They had to help man the fire brigade.

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Kyoshi dashed from his bedside toward the hallway. Somebody grabbed his arm.

“Get out of here.”

“We have to put out the fire!” Kyoshi shouted, still trying to run.

The hand yanked him back. “Get going. It’s the Imperial Army.”

Kyoshi shot a flabbergasted glance at his fellow novice. He must have been on the night watch for he was wearing his indigo cassock. His face was streaked with soot, mottled by the rivulets of sweat pouring down his face.

“What’s going on?” someone else asked.

“We’re surrounded. We wanted an answer from the emperor. Well, this is his answer.”

Kyoshi trembled. This is what it means to incur the displeasure of the sovereign. But going to such lengths boggled the mind.

“They set the temple on fire with no warnings whatsoever!”

“Unbelievable.”

His colleagues shook their heads. The flames burst forth all at once. When the baffled watchmen looked more closely, the mountain was surrounded on all sides by soldiers.

“The abbot?”

“In the main hall arranging his belonging. He said to bring the Holy Books and leave everything else behind.”

Kyoshi and the novices nodded.

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“You go assist the abbot and then escape to the foot of the mountain. I’ll make sure everybody is up and ready to go.”

Kyoshi and the novices nodded again. With no time to change into their indigo cassocks, they hurried to the main hall. A large number of Taoist temples made up the core of Zui’un Temple. Attached to each was a sage who administered an independent teaching monastery as the abbot. Taken altogether, these institutions collectively took on the name of Zui’un Temple.

Kyoshi belonged to Tokushi Temple. The name of the abbot was Seimei. They raced to his quarters, gathered up his belongings, and fled with him under the cover of the night.

A thick cordon of soldiers from the Imperial Army surrounded Zui’un Temple. Tokushi Temple sat at the foot of a mountain, as if carved from an enormous slab of rock. A narrow path used in their training continued across the mountain. No wider than an animal trail, it passed over the next ridgeline and then halfway up the side of Bokuyou Mountain.

Each carrying a pack, and alternatively leading the abbot by the hand, Kyoshi and his fellow novices traversed the dark mountain path. In a bitter irony, the light from the fiery destruction of Zui’un Temple illuminated the treacherous trail before them. As expected, the Imperial Army overlooked this one small path. They encountered not a single soldier along the way.

And so were somehow able to escape, while most of the monks and priests shared the same fate as Zui’un Temple. The neighboring Taoist and Buddhist temples fared no better. A few survivors escaped and managed to flee to nearby towns.

The tragedy only expanded. Though having nothing to do with the public inquiry, the villages outside the temple gates bore the stain of collaboration and were targeted for retribution.

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That they would incur the displeasure of the sovereign was a forgone conclusion. Depending on their individual circumstances, everyone at Zui’un Temple closely questioned the role they would play. Depending on the outcome, they understood it was entirely possible that the hierarchy of Zui’un Temple would bear the brunt of the blame and be punished in one fell swoop.

No one had anticipated that the unrestrained destruction would fall upon the laypersons working there and on the villages outside the gates, and not just the monks and priests attached to the temple. The residents included the faithful making pilgrimages to Zui’un and the surrounding temples and the infirmed staying there for medical treatment.

An entire region of Bokuyou Mountain was reduced to ashes, along with the kingdom’s blameless subjects. Such was the perverseness of Asen’s actions.

Even afterwards, Asen’s forces relentlessly hounded the remnants of Zui’un Temple. They destroyed any town or village that gave the Taoists shelter, even when its citizens had no idea that a priest or monk with nowhere else to turn had found his way there.

There were also Taoists who voluntarily surrendered to the Imperial Army in order to protect a town that had given them asylum. This was true of Kyoshi and his companions. The seventeen of them fled to Touka at the foot of Bokuyou Mountain. Not long after, the Imperial Army showed up, ready to commence a search. If their presence was discovered, the village would be eradicated.

In order to forestall that inevitability, the abbot and six novices walked out to meet the Imperial Army. Or rather, they persuaded the reluctant villagers to turn them over to the authorities.

For better or worse, the Imperial troops advancing on the village still did things by the book. At that time, the manhunt for the remnants of Zui’un Temple having just begun, the Imperial Army continued to pay heed to their military code. Though they might destroy buildings and threaten villagers in their search for escaping monks and priests, they did not resort to violent means beyond the pale.

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Villages that resisted were mercilessly put to the torch. Those that cooperated in the hunt were often given a pass. Including the abbot, six were handed over to the Imperial Army, with the villagers and the abbot insisting that they constituted the entire number that had shown up at the village gate. The Imperial Army did not press the matter. Their sacrifice spared the lives of Kyoshi and ten others.

Common sense dictated that, not only Kyoshi and the refugees from Zui’un, but most of those seeking sanctuary in the area would have dispersed and left the region. Except it wasn’t that simple.

The Taoist temples housed facilities that played a critical role in the compounding of herbal medicines absolutely necessary to practitioners of the healing arts. With no expectations of charity from the kingdom, the compounding of these medicines simply could not cease.

Kyoshi and his colleagues wandered through the ruins looking for kilns and tools to salvage. They repaired broken items, dug others out of the rubble and ash. If they gave up and abandoned the area, not only would there be no way to deliver the medicines into the hands of the practitioners, but the technology and knowledge necessary to make them would be lost as well.

So they held their ground there in the mountains. Despite getting caught up in so many troubles and suffering so much misfortune, they did their best to help the people around them. Not only did the villagers feed them out of their own poverty, but delivered the medicines in secret to other Taoist temples in the region. Then gathered more raw materials on their return journeys.

With those precious raw materials in hand, Kyoshi and his companions traveled throughout the mountains. Because all of the equipment they needed could not be found in the remains of one temple, completing an entire manufacturing process required going from mountain to mountain, from ruins to ruins.

Meanwhile, in order to maintain their stores of knowledge, they compiled new manuscripts based on the books and documents they dug up and whatever they could remember. With the cold and hunger whittling away at their numbers, they had held out for six years now.

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Responding to the questions asked of him, Kyoshi spoke about those years for a long time.

“You have endured well.”

Kyoshi felt a warm hand covering his. Startled, he raised his eyes. He was sitting on a makeshift platform formed by the foundation stones. To his befuddlement, Taiki himself knelt in front of him and clasped Kyoshi’s hands in his.

“Oh, nothing of the sort.”

Kyoshi hurriedly went to slip off the platform but Taiki didn’t release his hold.

“I am sorry. And I am thankful.”

Kyoshi found himself at a loss for words. Be sure to protect the kilns. Those were the words left behind by the abbot when he abandoned his hiding place in the village, and by Kyoshi’s colleague, who fell by the wayside while crossing the snowbound mountains and struggling toward the next kiln.

If the bamboo crates got drenched, the raw materials the people of Ten Shire risked their lives to gather and the medicines they’d produced so far would be rendered useless. Such sacrifices must have been weighing his mind, for after he stumbled off the mountain road, he wrapped the bamboo crates with his own cloak and froze as he curled around them.

It was really hard, Kyoshi wanted to say, a brutal six years that taxed the body and the soul.

“Taiho,” Kyoshi finally said. “There is one question I wanted to ask you.” The Taiho nodded and Kyoshi continued, “Where have you been up until now?”

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Kyoshi, came a scolding voice, which was to be expected. In so many words, he was criticizing the Taiho for his absence. But even so, he had to know.

“I was in Hourai.”

At the edge of the known world and far across the sea was said to exist a fabled kingdom called Hourai.

“I heard the Taiho was born in Hourai.”

Though a rare phenomenon, those known as taika were sometimes born in that mythical place. The Saiho—one such taika—nodded. He raised his hand, still holding Kyoshi’s, to his forehead.

“Forgive me, for I did not know how to return.”

Of course, Kyoshi thought. He couldn’t explain what he felt in tangible terms, but sensed something from the palm of the hand grasping his, the trembling power within.

“Thank you for returning to us,” Kyoshi said. “Words cannot express the joy we feel.”

For whatever reason, Taiki responded with a small shake of his head.

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