3-2 They headed north, Kyoshi taking the lead. The unsettled weather that brought the late-night drizzle moved on. Now not a single cloud hugged the black peaks of the soaring Ryou’un Mountain behind them. The clear blue sky went on forever. The bright sunlight stung his sleep-deprived eyes.
Spending most of the night preparing for the journey ahead had left none of them with any time for sleep. Kyoshi should be worn out but strangely felt no fatigue. Rather, his spirits were high, finally finding himself in the position to help save the people of Tai from the cruel fate visited upon them.
Dressing in traveling clothes for the first time in a long time certainly had an effect. When Zui’un Temple was put to the torch. Kyoshi headed into the mountains. His education incomplete, he could not then consider himself a full-fledged Taoist monk.
Later on, having completed his studies while in hiding and been awarded his certificate, given the current situation, he still didn’t wear a cassock, let alone the robes of a Taoist monk. There were supposedly no Taoists in Touka so this was only the natural thing to do.
And yet that morning Enchou had given him a set of his own robes, apologizing that the sudden turn of events hadn’t afforded him the time to procure new ones.
Custom dictated that a student received new robes in a formal ceremony upon completion of his certificate. It was a key turning point in the lives of all those who aspired to become Taoist monks. But Kyoshi and his colleagues hardly had the latitude to hold such a ceremony. Living their lives while staying out of sight, preserving the doctrines of their sect, and compounding medicines took up all of their time and energy. The ceremony was the last thing on their minds.
Amidst everything else going on, Kyoshi was deeply moved that Enchou had gone out of his way to present him with the certificate. The same held true for the robes. Kyoshi hadn’t ever thought the day would come when he would have the opportunity to wear them.
Their usefulness during their travels aside, Kyoshi was delighted to slip his arms through the sleeves and don the cap. Enchou’s robes were a bit short on him. But far more important than such quibbles, in the short span of time between the previous night and this morning, Enchou had bothered to dispatch a runner to his mountain refuge to retrieve the robes hidden there. The extent of such thoughtfulness touched his heart.
“I will do nothing to dishonor these robes,” he pledged to Enchou.
Enchou nodded and grasped Kyoshi’s hand. At that moment, Kyoshi felt the firm connection between them.
Kouryou’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “Hey, sorry about butting heads the other day,” he said, walking alongside him.
“Think nothing of it,” Kyoshi responded with a smile. “I’m quite happy to join you on this journey.”
Though he couldn’t help reminding himself what a strange turn of fate had brought them together. They met at the village gate. A misunderstanding led to open hostilities. And here they were walking side by side.
“You don’t say,” was the sum of Kouryou’s response.
The young man, now clad in the robes of a Taoist monk, seemed closer to his true self than the person Kouryou encountered yesterday.
It must have been a tough life. On the one hand, unfamiliar with actual weapons and yet defending the village with a stick, and on the other, scurrying about the mountains in order to keep the precious medicines in production. Kouryou had nothing but respect for the Taoists, who patiently endured those trials and worked their fingers to the bone on behalf of the people.
Kouryou had wandered about doing nothing more difficult than placing one foot in front of the other. He couldn’t but help feeling a tad abashed comparing his efforts to those earnestly supporting the kingdom in silence. Though at the same time, that knowledge raised his spirits.
This kingdom is not over yet.
Turning this strong conviction over in his mind, he walked a step behind the taciturn Kyoshi. After passing by two uninhabited villages in a row, they continued onto a side road. Back in the day when the countryside was still populated with villages and hamlets, this was the route loggers took into the mountains to cut down trees and haul out the timber.
They climbed the mountain path, now eaten away by weeds due to the decline in foot traffic. The sun was setting when they left this shortcut and exited onto a narrow and deserted road.
“Further on is a village I’ve stayed at in the past. It’s pretty desolate but we’re the only ones who use the place so we can stay there without any worries.”
That was all Kyoshi had to say about the subject but Kouryou understood the gist. Anybody traveling with kijuu was bound to stand out in a crowd. In particular, the suugu Taiki had on loan from the Imperial En was no run-of-the-mill kijuu and was bound to attract attention.
Still, Kouryou said, “I wouldn’t want anybody to go out of their way for us.”
Kyoshi answered cheerfully, “Don’t worry. We’re accustomed to traveling without creating a scene. No matter where you’re transporting medicines to or from, you must do so in a way that leaves no one else the wiser.”
A reasonably intelligent bandit observing the shipments on a regular basis could conclude that goods of a particular kind and quantity were being moved. Following those movements and tracking the paths the medicines took back to the destination points might then tie the loose ends together.
So Kyoshi and his fellow monks stayed away from the main roads while in Ten Shire. They lay low, avoided the public eye, and when they could not, chose routes that let them fade into the background, ensuring that no one remembered them. Once they left Ten Shire, they gradually merged onto the thoroughfares, mingling together with the larger crowds of travelers.
“I sincerely bow my head to the hard work done by you and your colleagues,” Taiki blurted out.
Kyoshi was deeply humbled by the remark. It was easy to tell that he found himself at something of a loss walking alongside Taiki, an experience that was, for Kouryou, no less discomfiting. He couldn’t help tensing up every time he reminded himself that Taiki was right there with them.
Only Risai exhibited not the slightest bit of stress in his presence. She carried on around him like it was only natural and spoke to him like an older sister. The sight of the two of them aroused in Kouryou a strange sense of admiration. Of course, he should expect no less of the general.
Doing his best to put Taiki out of his mind, he climbed the lonely road. Before sundown they arrived at a small village. Fall foliage covered the fallow ground. The path that continued onto the village gate was little more than a worn line in the grass. The palisades surrounding the village were broken down in one part and bore the scars of a fire in another. From the gate, the place appeared unoccupied. One small step away from complete collapse, this sort of small village was not rare in Ten Shire.
A bent-over old woman opened one door of the gate, stood back as they passed through, and quietly closed it behind them. Just inside the gates was a man sitting on a pile of rubble alongside the road. He was waiting for them. He was dressed in traveling clothes and had a pack on his back. A small man, he looked halfway through his thirties, about ten years older than Kyoshi.
He stood when they approached. Kyoshi raised a hand in greeting and glanced over his shoulder at Kouryou. “He’ll be our shin’nou, our guide from here on out.”
Shin’nou were traveling merchants who sold medicinal compounds. The shin’nou primarily delivered the medicines made at Taoist temples to other temples in the same sect for distribution. Beyond that, the shin’nou also accepted commissions to transport medicines into territories outside the jurisdiction of the temples.
Kyoshi explained, “You see, I’ve hardly been outside Kou Province so I’m not familiar with the geography of Bun Province.”
Kyoshi was born in Kou and entered Zui’un Temple at a fairly young age. Since then, aside from taking on particular assignments, he hadn’t ventured outside of Ten Shire. So Enchou arranged for a shin’nou guide with a feel for the land who was familiar with the Taoist temples in Bun Province.
“Shin’nou are known for being trustworthy and keeping their business close to the chest. Among them, this is a man Enchou has great faith in, so you can set your minds at ease.”
As Kyoshi spoke, the man in question approached them. Coming alongside Kyoshi, he slowly surveyed the group. Upon reaching Taiki, his gaze stopped. He gave Taiki a long look, followed by a small but respectful nod.
“My name is Houto. We are honored to have you here.”
The tension in his voice suggested a man steeling his emotions. Welcome home, was the meaning behind the words.
“I’m honored that a lowly shin’nou such as I should have the privilege of accompanying you. Please, if there is anything you need, let me know.”
Houto bowed to the group as a whole, then grinned and clapped Kyoshi on the shoulder. “Look who’s outdone himself. You’ve certainly come a long way.”
“I claim nothing on my own behalf but what Heaven kindly granted. Enchou said that a shin’nou would be joining us. It’s reassuring to know that it’s you.”
“Well, I have to wonder how useful I’ll be. Looks like you’ve already got some pretty sharp traveling companions. But I guess Enchou felt it necessary to go the extra mile.”
Risai frowned. “The extra mile?”
“That’s right,” Houto said, again taking in the group as a whole. As Kyoshi led them further into the village, Houto said, “I was born and raised in I Province.”
Gyousou was from Garyou, a city deep in the heart of I Province.
“Where in I Province?” This question was unexpectedly posed by Taiki.
“South Ryou Prefecture. Gyousou-sama’s home town is in North Ryou Prefecture.”
Garyou was a fairly large city located in a narrow valley in the northwest of I Province. The prefectural castle of North Ryou Prefecture occupied a strategic point on the road crossing the surrounding mountains. South Ryou Prefecture, where Houto was born, sat on the border.
“North Ryou is right in the middle of a rugged mountain range,” Houto said, walking alongside Taiki. There was a discernable touch of nostalgia in his voice. “South Ryou is the gateway to the mountains in that region. You can still find arable land there and a thriving forestry trade. But once you get to North Ryou, there’s no good land to farm and the forests are threadbare. You’re close to the timberline up there. The trees that do grow aren’t worth cutting down. The only green you’ll see are the shrubs and pines clinging to the cliffs.”
Listening to Houto talking to Taiki, Risai nodded to herself. She recalled the last time she visited Garyou. The mountains around Garyou were high and steep and unpopulated. The patches of green painted on the brown cliffs created a panorama particular to the place. Houses dotted the road that wound through the precipitous mountains, but on not enough houses on enough land to even form a hamlet.
Under normal circumstances, eight families gathered together in a hamlet. But there wasn’t enough land to support eight families in one place. Scattered along the road was a house here, two houses there. Around them, narrow strips of farmland clung to the mountainsides in terraced steps.
“And yet there are beautiful places to see in the summer. Though summer mornings are often blanketed by fog, the sight of the mist flowing through the tall mountains is truly breathtaking. As are the evenings. The setting sun sets the mountains aglow in dark shades of red and casts stark shadows across the sky. While it is a land of fierce winds and a severe climate, its famed Taoist temples are among its many outstanding points.”
Risai nodded here as well. She had visited there in the winter and had only seen Shungen but the views were indeed beautiful. The rustic yet proud vistas somehow reminded her of Gyousou.
“You expect a place like that to be poor by nature. And, in fact, the farmers lead hard lives. But Garyou is right there in the middle and it’s a fairly big city. Without taking the road through that unforgiving mountain range, you can’t get anywhere west from I Province. You can travel north or south to Jou Province or Gai Province, and there are large cities in the central regions and along the eastern seaboard. But if you wish to go anywhere else, other than circling around through Jou or Gai, the only way through is via North Ryou. Especially if you’re going west or headed to Zui Province, North Ryou is the fastest route. Cross the mountains in North Ryou and you’ll come out on the major highway that crosses Zui Province south of Kouki. For those travelers, a stay in Garyou is pretty much guaranteed.”
Garyou flourished as a vital crossroads along the way and the surplus spilled over to South Ryou. Because any trade from the south destined for Garyou had to pass through South Ryou, Houto explained with a grin.
“That’s for certain,” Risai said. “When I was there, the place was thick with travelers, along with traders hauling large shipments with packhorses and teams of oxen.”
Taiki turned to Risai. “Aren’t the roads pretty rugged?” he asked, his eyes bright. No surprise that he should take a keen interest in anything to do with Gyousou’s home town.
Risai smiled. “The roads can be steep, to be sure. But they’re surprisingly easy to walk. The roads are paved with stone. Rest spots and lots for carts and wagons were set up at all the critical points. For women, children, and the elderly lacking the leg strength, and for the carts and wagons as well, alongside the steeper hills are switchbacks and detours that climb at a gentler grade.”
“Impressive,” Taiki said aloud.
Houto said, “Gyousou-sama took charge of that road.”
“Eh?” Taiki looked at Houto.
“Word is, back in the day, that was a precarious route to travel. Easy to lose your footing. Landslides and crumbling shoulders. Lots of places were hard to traverse. So even though the long way around took a good deal longer, it was pretty common to skirt North Ryou altogether.”
Those who achieved success in their careers were wont to dote on their home towns once they made a name for themselves Many contributed money and materials to the rika and the public storehouse. Gyousou chose a different approach. He began paving the road in the eroded areas and built the switchbacks and detours.
“He caught a fair amount of bad-mouthing at first.” Houto chuckled. “Wouldn’t send us even a bushel of barley. That kind of griping. One year, the crops failed in the North Ryou region and food supplies ran low. But when they asked for help, he sent stonemasons instead of food”
A scowl eclipsed the amused expression on Houto’s face. “Well, that’s all stories and folklore. Everybody knows he did in fact promptly send food. According to the people living on the land, that’s what assured them Gyousou was personally invested in the fate of his home town. He knew what they needed. They were sure he’d either send food or funds to buy food this year too. But, no, come the fall, he sent more stonemasons. That one’s a true story. The best stonemasons in the land arrived from the capital. Of course, they were there to make sure the road got resurfaced.”
Taiki said, “So Gyousou-sama understood what his home town really needed.”
Houto nodded. “That’s the way I read it too. Season to season, at each point along the way, Gyousou-sama saw to the completion of the road. As road conditions improved, the number of travelers increased.”
“And as a result, North Ryou grew more prosperous.”
“Exactly. Moreover, the stonemasons from the capital had to hire local labor to get the job done. Instead of donating money, Gyousou-sama paid them a just wage. That way, the workers learned a trade working under the skilled stonemasons from the capital. The next time, practicing that trade, they could support their families and the farming community. Some could venture out on their own and earn a living as stonemasons too.”
“I see,” Taiki cheerfully responded.
“A family in a hut on a ridiculously small sliver of flat land could now lay down a proper foundation, raise stone walls, and build the kind of house anyone would be happy to live in. Fields once had to be farmed in the few places with arable land, more often than not a hard hike away. Now they could build the terraces and aqueducts themselves and till the land right next to the farmhouse on their allotment.”
And so North Ryou flourished. As the number of travelers increased, South Ryou as well shared in the prosperity.
“That’s why so many people in the northwest of I Province are fond of Gyousou-sama,” Houto said with a smile. Then he lowered his voice and added, “And that’s why, from the start, Asen had it in for them.”
“Ah.” Risai felt a tightness in her chest. “I once traveled to Garyou in hope of finding some trace of Gyousou-sama. But it had already been erased off the face of the earth.”
Surrounded by the rugged peaks, the remains of charred and fallen walls traced charcoal outlines on the valley floor. Within those outlines, the rows of blackened foundations—like ancient historic ruins—preserved the only evidence of the many buildings that once stood there.
Houto nodded. “The city got burned to the ground. But people living in the surrounding areas believe that Gyousou-sama lives. Even if the tides of fortune turned against him, they will not give up until they have discovered his corpse and buried his bones. There are still those of us who continue to search for Gyousou-sama.”
The last time Risai ventured to I Province, she found refuge in a little hut in a mountain valley. The old man living there had abandoned all hope. But his granddaughter had not.
“Despite everything, the girl still hoped for the day when His Highness and the Taiho would return.”
Though the price of giving Risai shelter was their own deaths.
Houto listened with a grim smile on his face. “If they knew that saving Risai-sama meant you would bring the Taiho back to Tai, they would rejoice to see their efforts so well rewarded.”
“I do have to wonder.”
“The people of I Province definitely would agree. They will lay everything on the line for the good to prevail. Indeed, because I happened to be in the vicinity of Touka, I’ve been able to lend a hand like this. I too am thankful that Heaven granted me this opportunity.”
“I see,” Risai said under her breath.
They approached one of the private dwellings. At the fore of their little troupe, Kyoshi stopped and rapped on the front gate to the house. “We’ll stay here. Normally we would use the council house or the rika but both were put to the torch and have gaping holes in the roofs.”
Not the roofs in their entirety, but the half-burned building had since been abandoned and weren’t suitable for human habitation. No one had the time or energy to maintain them, let alone repair them.
Risai asked, “What of the village manager?”
“Doesn’t have one. The council house exists in name only. As a practical matter, this village merged its administration with a neighboring town. Only the Rishi continues to function and is minded by the superintendent. The superintendent is away on business. That’s why he’s not here to greet you.” Kyoshi added in a quiet voice, “All they know is that they’re putting an important guest up for the night. I know it sounds impolite, but refer to him as the Young Master.”
As Kyoshi finished his explanation, the gate opened. A stout middle-aged woman emerged. “Welcome, welcome,” she said.
“Sorry for suddenly dropping in like this,” Kyoshi said, and ushered the rest of them inside the house. Once past the gate, they found themselves in a courtyard that had a homey, live-in feel about it. The living quarters surrounded the courtyard on three sides. A quite ordinary kind of private residence, it was on the small side but clean and trim.
The woman was a resident of the village. A widow, her husband and child had died in the massacre. Most days, she worked in a nearby town and didn’t return except to take care of business when she had lodgers. She spoke only when spoken to and otherwise didn’t engage in idle talk or interrupt their conversations.
She addressed Taiki directly but once. “The Young Master appears quite worn out. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. Thank you.”
She smiled and said in a consoling manner, “Please have a good night’s sleep.” Then finished tidying up and left.
Risai said, “It takes everything these people have just to make ends meet and yet they set it all aside to help Kyoshi and his colleagues.”
“Everybody in this village is doing the best they can,” Kyoshi said. “Despite all they have suffered because of us, they bear us no ill will and will extend a helping hand at a moment’s notice. Those who are healthy enough work in nearby towns and support the children and elderly as well.”
Only six families remained in the village, not enough to even constitute a hamlet. Most traveled from the village to work in the towns along the road. Though, in fact, hiding out in the village were as many monks and priests as residents.
The children, the elderly, and the infirmed remained in the village, where they looked after the Rishi and manned the gate. Along with these and other public duties, they also farmed a few small fields and raised livestock. Working together, they managed to eke out a living and support the Taoists in their midst.
“They reduce their own stipends in order to make sure we get fed.”
Risai nodded. Kyoshi and his fellow monks had held their ground and earnestly put their lives on the line for the kingdom and the people.
Perhaps thinking along similar lines, Taiki asked, “Were the herbal medicines made only at Zui’un Temple?”
Kyoshi straightened his back and answered, “No. We aren’t the only ones producing them. Other sects and temples in other regions do as well. But we make different kinds—well, no, they’re the same medicines, but—”
When Kyoshi faltered in his explanation, Houto came to his rescue. “The Taoist and Buddhist temples that remained in the area also make herbal medicines, as do those in other sects, as well as Taoist temples around the kingdom. But even medicines made for the same use differ in efficacy from temple to temple. Moreover, Zui’un Temple alone has preserved the time-honored formulas, which will die out if the monks don’t continue to produce them. Not only at Zui’un Temple, but production processes across the kingdom are being shifted around little by little. Though where secret formulas and proprietary equipment are involved, it obviously can’t be done in one fell swoop.”
“And those medicines are what the shin’nou travel around to all these different places to sell?”
“That’s right,” said Houto. “The Taoist temples also operate as affiliated enterprises. The temples of the various sects basically handle only the herbal medicines compounded at their member temples. Dispensaries in the gate towns stock and sell medicines from all of the sects. In big towns and cities, pharmacies are supplied by wholesalers like us.”
Besides herbal medicines originating with the Taoist and Buddhist temples, the pharmacies sold compounds produced by the Ministry of Winter. As a rule, the Ministry of Winter distributed prescriptions with documented formulations, though the compounding was done at Taoist and Buddhist temples familiar with the techniques and equipment.
There was a class of medicines produced only by the Ministry of Winter and distributed directly to physicians and pharmacies. The efficacy of these medicines was proven and established, and thus carried a higher price.
“Fortunately, even today, we’ve seen no interruption in the supply of medicines from the Tai Ministry of Winter. But for people who have difficulty putting food on the table, these are not the kind of goods they’ll ever be able to put their hands on. So they rely instead on less expensive herbal medicines.”
The shin’nou shipped them across the kingdom, to the temples, dispensaries, and pharmacies in each region. And also to warehouses maintained by the shin’nou guilds. The warehouses in each region were supervised by a manager who handled distribution to the local shin’nou guilds. These local guilds directly employed the shin’nou, who restocked their inventories and peddled their wares to the villages and hamlets on regular routes and schedules.
“Do the shin’nou report to someone who acts as their supervisor?”
“Not somebody you would call a boss. There isn’t just one organization. Or rather, think of it as a group of related families. A keiretsu. Each family has a family head. Being members of the same extended family ties the family heads together. The warehouse manager who runs this area goes by the name of Tanshou.”
“Where is Tanshou located?”
“He moved his base of operations to a city farther away. No reason to stay here with Zui’un Temple gone. As a result, the shin’nou aren’t moving shipments through the area. Distribution to the Taoist temples instead depends on the people of Ten Shire. In numbers small enough not to attract attention, guys like me are sent to help out Kyoshi and his friends the best way we can.”
The shin’nou working under Tanshou relied on the assistance of people in Ten Shire to move shipments around the region. Among them, Houto handled a route that circled through Ba Province and Bun Province.
“From Iryou, the provincial capital of Ba, to Hakurou, the provincial capital of Bun, and Soukou, the provincial capital of Kou.”
From here in Ten Shire, they transported goods to warehouses in each of the provincial capitals. Houto’s route took him to those three places, but Tanshou also supervised members of the guilds whose tours took them through much narrower territories. Put all together, the shin’nou had a working knowledge of every inch of the kingdom.
“Traveling is what we do. You can leave the particulars of the journey to me.”
“Thank you,” Taiki said with a polite bow.
“I’m thinking we’ll head for Hokuyou. Like here, Hokuyou is a village that supports the Zui’un Temple so we can stay there without any worries. Though the road there isn’t the easiest to navigate.” Houto added in an apologetic tone of voice, “It’s a rough back road without any good places to rest. You’ll have to be patient.”
“No matter the road, we’ll take our lead from Kyoshi and Houto,” Risai said. “Don’t worry about us. Seems the presence of our kijuu is causing you some concern. Sorry about that.”
“We likewise apologize for the inconvenience. It’s just that we’ll have horses ready in Hokuyou, and fairly soon, a kijuu for Kouryou-sama. Granted, any kijuu we can get our hands on probably won’t amount to much. But we’re leaving no stone unturned. It shouldn’t take long for our associates to deliver one to a town we’ll be stopping at along the way.”
A flustered Kouryou raised his hand. “You needn’t go to such lengths,” he protested.
“No.” Houto shook his head. “Please let us do this much. We’d prefer to provide one for each of you, but unfortunately, riding a flying kijuu is not something I can do.”
He looked at Kyoshi, who also nodded. “Just getting on a horse taxes the limits of my physical abilities.”
Houto said with a knowing smile, “If Kouryou-sama has a kijuu, the three of you can stay out of sight in the sky while scouting out our objectives further on. And if we have horses, then we can move along at a safe distance without slowing down your progress too much.
“We are indeed grateful for your careful consideration of every last detail. You really do have our heartfelt thanks.”
Risai bowed her head. They had all gone to extraordinary lengths to make these preparations on such short notice. Had Tanshou expressed such a keen concern? Or was it Enchou or Doujin? Perhaps Houto had seized the baton. Either way, considering the time and money involved, they must have all had a hand in making these arrangements.
Risai once again couldn’t help but thank the good fortune of remembering Mount Bokuyou when it truly mattered.