3-4 Kouryou was at army headquarters when the orders came down. He remembered muttering in bewilderment, “A whole division of the Palace Guard?”
“One whole division,” Eishou replied in blunt tones mingled with undisguised cynicism.
“But—” broke in Rikei. A regimental commander like Kouryou, his confusion was just as evidence. “I heard that the brigands occupying the city number around five hundred.”
The voice faded to a whisper. Rikei was the youngest of the five regimental commanders and still intimidated by Eishou’s presence. Not only the youngest, also the most recently promoted. Kiryou, the previous commander, was appointed a general in the Bun Provincial Guard. Formerly a brigade leader, Rikei was chosen to fill the opening three months ago.
Considering the crusty personality of his superior officer, Kouryou thought with a small smile, a little timidity was to be expected.
Kouryou said, “The enemy occupied a shire castle and barricaded themselves within its thick walls. Moreover, they know the lay of the land.”
In response, Eishou laughed through his nose. “Stuff and nonsense,” he spit out. “However well they may know the territory, in the end, they’re a bunch of rogues and villains. No match for the regular army. And we’ll have the Bun Provincial Guard. A motley crew of chicken-hearted country bumpkins and hangers-on they may be, but General Kiryou will whip them into shape. Pitting the twelve-thousand, five-hundred soldiers of the Palace Guard against five hundred brigands should prove about as difficult as breaking eggs with a catapult.”
At the conclusion of this little rant, Eishou turned to Kouryou and said, “I take it that’s what you meant by a whole division?”
“Well, more or less.”
This sardonic attitude was nothing out of the ordinary for Eishou and a nothing to get offended about either.
“His Highness agrees.” Though the sarcasm was still there, Kouryou knew full well that Eishou simply wasn’t capable of harboring negative feelings when it came to Gyousou. “His Highness believes it is vital to convince the people of Bun Province that the kingdom will be there to protect them.”
The mighty power of a full military division of the Palace Guard would make clear that they had nothing to fear from the brigands. That was why Eishou was being dispatched to Bun Province.
Of course, Kouryou thought. “When will you deploy?”
In answer to Kouryou’s inquiry, Eishou answered crisply, “As soon as possible.”
“Snow is falling. The Ministry of Spring forecasts it will keep falling for some time.”
“The Zui Provincial Guard will remove the snow along the route.”
It was a foregone conclusion that replacing the top leadership of Bun Province would sooner or later lead to strife with the local land gangs. With that expectation in mind, guardsmen had been stationed at key points along the main roads. Whenever it snowed, they expedited snow removal as well.
“Well, I would expect no less from Gyousou-sama.”
From before he became emperor until now, both he and Eishou had served Gyousou as their commanding officer with great respect and admiration.
“In any case, we don’t have the leeway to wait until spring. There being no way to avoid a hard winter march, best we get it done earlier than later. In fact, a letup in the weather would come with its own problems. It would definitely affect the mopping up operations.”
Kouryou and the other regimental commanders chimed in to agree. The hill they had to climb after that was nevertheless a steep one.
Having anticipated the likelihood of such a situation, every care was taken getting ready for a quick deployment. Nevertheless, preparing for the expedition to Bun Province took a good deal of time and trouble. With little sleep or rest, the plans were put in motion and a regiment left Kouki the next day as an advance guard.
Thereafter, the remaining regiments departed at regular intervals and proceeded north along the highway to Bun Province. The rear guard led by Kouryou and accompanied by Eishou departed Kouki three days later.
The road from Kouki to Bun Province was a frozen sheen of white. During the winter, the sky seemed constantly blanketed by snow-laden clouds from which white snowflakes constantly fell. No sooner had the heavily trampled highway been cleared but fresh snow piled up. Kicked up by the wind, the footsteps of the troops soon disappeared beneath a white haze.
After proceeding along the snow swept roads for two weeks, Eishou’s army arrived at Rin’u in Bun Province. They set up camp at the outskirts of the city. The troublesome town of Kohaku was a day’s march from there.
“They suddenly came surging into the city,” stated the complaint lodged by the mayor of Kohaku.
The outlaws responsible for the violence hailed from nearby Koumon. The mines developed on Koumon Mountain had yielded no ore deposits worth exploiting in recent years, only gemstone fountains. The stones produced by the gemstone fountains were second grade at best. In terms of the overall scale, it was not a wealthy mountain.
The outlaws running the territory belonged to an up and rising land gang. The entire operation was beset by one problem after the next. The provincial government sent in an inspector to get a handle on the situation. The outlaws on Koumon Mountain sent him and his crew packing and used strong-arm tactics to close off their access to the mountain.
In order to restrain the violence-prone land gangs and restore order to the Koumon region, the provincial justice minister sent orders to the shire justice minister along with a contingent of gendarmes. At this juncture, the situation still fell under the legal jurisdiction of the Ministry of Fall.
“Normally, we would handle the matter locally,” said the Bun Minister of Fall, who’d arrived to explain what was going on.
While under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Fall, the incident was classified as a public disturbance. If the disorder spread to the point that it became a rebellion, the jurisdiction shifted to the military and the Ministry of Summer and the Provincial Guard took over.
None of the land gangs could fight and win again the military in a face-to-face conflict. Knowing this full well, they looked for a way to settle their differences while the issue was under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Fall.
“They didn’t know when to quit and ended up trading blows with the gendarmes.”
Though the gendarmes acted under the direction of the Ministry of Fall, they were in fact soldiers on loan from the military. Their objective being the apprehension of criminal suspects, they were under strict orders not to use military tactics and weaponry. However, even with their hands so tied, there was little chance of them losing to the land gangs in a direct confrontation.
The gendarmes defeated the outlaws at Koumon in short order. But instead of surrendering, the outlaws fled down the mountain and holed up in Kohaku. Then taking advantage of its light defenses, they stormed the shire seat, killed the administrator, and occupied the citadel.
“Quite the head of government,” Eishou said with a thin smile. “A big brawl was going on right next door. But instead of strengthening his defenses, the administrator decided to take it easy and had the shire seat stolen out right from under him. Well, not before stealing his life first.”
The Bun Minister of Fall hunched his shoulders as if the criticism were personally aimed at him.
The city enclosed the village at its core. The village manager of Kohaku was a kindly middle-aged woman. One of her feet dragged along the ground as she walked.
“There’s bound to be trouble when civilians get caught up in a melee. What happened to your foot?”
“When the outlaws came storming in, they straightaway tried to break into the public storehouse.”
The storehouse contained emergency reserves of the basic necessities the village depended on during a crisis. In the winter, when the frozen land yielded nothing in the way of edible produce, the storehouse was the villager’s lifeline.
“We cannot live without food and charcoal. We never have enough in the first place. Because those brigands kept showing up and pilfering our goods at every turn. We have to offer a helping hand to those hit by hard times. As a result, even in good times, we’re going to have fewer supplies than we need. And yet here they come to steal more.”
People from the surrounding area pitched in and they held off the invaders as best they could. They got battered and bruised with little to show for their efforts.
“Looks like the shire administrator never showed much interest in defending the village. Well, what goes around comes around. He received a just reward for his incompetence.”
The outlaws attacked the storehouse and the homes of the inhabitants. Nobody else sallied in to defend them. Around that time, the shire citadel had already fallen to the main force of the land gangs. The village manager fled Kohaku with all the residents well enough to move.
“A good thing they didn’t take your lives as well. We promise to return Kohaku to you as soon as possible. You don’t worry about the storehouse. Expend your efforts nursing the wounded back to health.”
“Thank you,” said the village manager, bowing her head low.
She bowed several more times as she left the camp. Watching her leave, Kouryou said, “Are you sure it was a good idea to make promises about the warehouse?”
“It’s all the same to me. His Highness desires peace and prosperity for the people of Bun Province. Once we retake Kohaku, we can replenish the storehouse from military stockpiles. Have the Provincial or Imperial quartermaster arrange the shipments.”
“Providing there’s enough to spare.”
Little time had passed since Gyousou’s enthronement. The dissolute rule of the late Emperor Kyou and the empty throne that followed ravaged the realm. Even the Imperial storehouses hadn’t been adequately maintained.
“If not, you can take it from my estate,” Eishou said with an indifferent shrug.
Eishou ran a wealthy estate. To start with, not only Eishou, but all of Gyousou’s officers managed their estates well. When evaluating the merits of his subordinates, General Gyousou took into consideration their military skills and also their ability to manage their lands. No matter how well a commander fought on the battlefield, a mismanaged estate ranked him lower in Gyousou’s eyes. This explained why, after his enthronement, he so speedily put the Imperial Court in order.
Kouryou grinned. “Well, that settles the matter of the storehouse, which leave us with your promise to retake Kohaku.”
“Not losing any sleep over that either,” Eishou said, a cruel smirk rising to his face.
True to those words, as soon as the Palace Guard bivouacked, he called up three regiments and surrounded Kohaku. They sealed the gates, locked down the city, eliminated the outlaws, and freed the besieged citizens. The troops advanced to the city center and mopped up the remaining brigands holed up in the shire castle.
The whole operation was over in less than two weeks. Kohaku was liberated as promised, with a minimum of collateral damage. Nevertheless, Kouryou’s work was far from over. Before the Palace Guard had retaken Kohaku, the outlaws incited insurrections in three nearby locations.
Along with cleaning up the mess in Kohaku, they had to deal with three more conflicts. On the verge of getting a grip on that mayhem, the fires spread elsewhere. In the time it took to suppress those outbreaks, more riots broke out in yet another location. When the Provincial Guard was mobilized and sent into the fray, the insurgents banded together and expanded the field of battle.
Answering suspicions that this was less a grass roots uprising than a carefully calculated rebellion, General Sougen of the Sui Provincial Guard was dispatched from the capital. Not only that, but Gyousou himself departed for the front with a contingent of the Imperial Army.
“The Emperor?” exclaimed Rikei upon hearing the news. Kouryou was no less surprised.
“That’s right.” Eishou tossed aside the document brought by the blue bird carrier pigeon. The thin, nearly transparent sheet of paper drifted like a big snowflake to the slushy ground, where Eishou stomped on it with the heel of his boot in an obvious pique.
Kouryou picked it up. It was for their eyes only, after all, and should be properly disposed of.
Rikei hardly looked satisfied but wasn’t about to press Eishou on the matter. The tide of battle showed no signs of turning. That left Eishou in a chronically bad mood. Relying on the help of the Provincial Guard stung his pride. Now the situation had deteriorated to the point that General Sougen was rushing to his aid.
Moreover, with the subjugation of the outlaws dragging on day by day, the snow was growing soft. The battleground turned to slush during the day. At night, the snow froze, preserving the footprints tracked across fields in blocks of ice and making the ground as treacherous as rocky terrain.
Now and then came a day warm enough to bring out a sweat. And then temperatures plunged the next, bringing fresh snow. Even the elements conspired to exasperate Eishou to no end.
“Under normal circumstances, the Emperor himself should not depart for the front,” Kouryou said, taking over the conversation. “The battlefield is constantly on the move. At this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if Tetsui gets involved.”
“Isn’t Tetsui located to the west of Kan’you Mountain? Once you cross over the mountain. It’s got a mid-sized shire citadel.”
“The size of the city isn’t the problem. Tetsui is a special place for His Highness and for us.”
Back in the day, Tetsui refused to pay the harsh taxes demanded of them and shuttered the municipal treasury. This was during the dynasty of Emperor Kyou. The Emperor’s extravagant lifestyle exhausted the wealth of the kingdom. The tax burden rose accordingly, falling all the heavier on the poorer districts. If the weather worsened and natural disasters increased, there might be nothing to live on once the taxes were paid.
Pay the taxes and starve to death. Refuse and be condemned to death. Tetsui chose the latter. They turned away the tax collectors, shuttered the treasury, barricaded the city, and continued to resist. The kingdom in turn labeled them rebels. The military officer Emperor Kyou dispatched to subjugate them was none other than General Gyousou.
“That’s right,” Eishou muttered. “You were there, Kouryou.”
“I was. Among the current regimental commanders was Kiryou—who was transferred to Bun Province—and myself and Gouhei too, I believe.”
“Yeah, I was there.” Gouhei spoke up. “I’d just been promoted to company commander.”
Rikei shook his head. “An army of the Palace Guard pitted against citizen rebels holed up in the shire citadel—sounds lot like this current business in Kohaku.”
“I hope the resemblances stop there,” Gouhei answered with a grin. “You see, we lost that one.”
Rikei’s eyes grew wide with surprise. “You lost?”
“More accurate to say we didn’t win,” Eishou interjected. “We didn’t lose. We simply didn’t win. Not because Tetsui was well defended. Gyousou-sama decided that Tetsui was on the right side of the argument. The treasury had to be opened but the inhabitants of Tetsui were not rebels.”
“I thought that Gyousou-sama never lost a battle.”
Eishou scowled. “Hard to even call it a loss. He applied that sort of tendentious logic to the situation and threw away a certain victory.”
Kouryou and Rikei exchanged wry smiles.
“There are some in the rank and file who misunderstand the meaning of the term, but among Emperor Kyou’s generals, the only one who truly never lost a battle is Asen-dono.”
Two others had similar records. One of them had only recently been promoted and the other was a wily old badger who never engaged an enemy he wasn’t already assured of defeating.
Momentarily lost in reflection, Gouhei said, “I’ll never forget that battle. Our opponents weren’t rebels, so we just couldn’t attack them.”
“You didn’t attack?” echoed the astonished Rikei.
“Our orders stated so, in no uncertain terms. The result was, they came at us with shovels and hoes and we defended ourselves using our shields like a tortoise.”
“We carried no weapons into the fray. Only shields, wooden shields with metal sheets attached to them. When the command came down, it felt like we were being told to die.”
Kouryou grinned at the rekindled memory. “Sure did. We gritted our teeth and waited for them to wear themselves out.”
The stories later told of that day called them “white cotton shields.” The wooden shields had a cotton or wool backing to protect the citizen soldiers. In fact, the “white cotton shields” were used only at first. They couldn’t stand up to much punishment, not considering the kind of beating the soldiers were taking. Strictly disposable. There wasn’t enough material to go around in the first place and soon it was getting left out. Gyousou expected as much. He deployed the “white cotton shields” at the onset solely as a symbol to display the intentions of the Palace Guard.
Gyousou announced as well when the battle began that any soldier coming away with a bloodied shield would have hell to pay. He meant it. Severe consequences awaited any soldier who let things to get out of hand and stained his shield by drawing blood.
“As our raw supplies diminished, the metal plates shrunk as well.” Gouhei chuckled. “Pretty soon there wasn’t any left. We had no choice but to make the shields bigger and bigger. And heavier. Wielding them with any kind of dexterity became impossible. We couldn’t counterattack if we wanted to.”
Rikei asked Kouryou, “And that was how the battle was finally concluded?”
“The battle never really concluded. That’s why nobody lost but nobody won either.”
“What a strange battle that was,” Gouhei muttered with a sentimental sign. “When they first saw we weren’t carrying swords, they came at us with a vengeance. But gradually eased up on the attacks.”
“More like they got worn out and bored. And they hadn’t had anything to eat for a while. In the end, they simply lacked the physical stamina to stay on the offensive.”
“We’d stick rations in our pockets, and when our small-town brawlers started getting wobbly and had to take a break, we’d hand them over.”
“On the other hand, I was given some boiled butterbur. My benefactor pitied me for the hard job we’d taken on.”
“It happened,” Gouhei said with a smile. “Others expressed concerns about our health, asking us if we were okay.”
His eyes still wide with amazement, Rikei said, “Sounds an awful lot like one of those ancient battles out of a folk ballad.”
“Nothing like a ballad. It was a battlefield, after all, a place where people were out for blood.”
The people of Tetsui, surrounded by the Palace Guard, resolved themselves for annihilation. Certain the army had come to kill them all, they launched their initial counterattack as a fight to the death. It took them a while to realize that Kouryou and his officers had no desire to engage them, though some in Tetsui still believed they were going to all end up dead in the end.
“People got killed and suffered heavy wounds. I put so much strain on my shield-bearing arm that I couldn’t fully extend it for several years.”
The righteous indignation Kouryou and the soldiers felt on the behalf of the people of Tetsui—who were being sacrificed on the altar of Emperor Kyou’s luxurious lifestyle—helped them carry out Gyousou’s order not to strike out in anger. Paying such heavy taxes would leave the people with nothing to live on. Refusing to pay the taxes resulted in situations like this. Even the lower ranked officers keenly grasped the cruelty of the dilemma the villagers found themselves in.
So Kouryou was delighted to hear Gyousou state that Tetsui was on the right side of the argument. That made following such unconventional orders all the easier.
“As far as battles go, it was a bad one,” Eishou said, “and not one I care to remember. But the people of Tetsui weren’t bereft of reason. In the end, they opened the gates and complied with the levies.”
“They were weeping as they opened the gates,” Gouhei said. “The soldiers carting off the goods from the municipal treasury couldn’t help tearing up as well.”
Because paying the assessed taxes meant they would starve that winter. They’d boarded up the city gates knowing they’d be branded rebels and exterminated. Forced to pay the taxes against their will, they knew that suffering and starvation awaited them. Kouryou saw the shadow of death in the dejected expressions on their faces, the faces of the young, the old, and the walking wounded. And yet the taxes had to be paid if the war was ever going to end.
“As expected, that incident brought the problems of excessively heavy taxes to the fore, which were only expected to grow worse from the next year onward. After the battle, we all chipped in out of our own pockets. But make no mistake, the coming winter was a hard one.
Knowing all that, the taxes had to be collected. Giving tax outlaws a pass would shake the financial foundations of the kingdom. Tetsui had to be attacked to prevent that from happening. If they resisted, they had to be destroyed. Gyousou had resolved to not attack the people of Tetsui. But the longer the conflict dragged on, the higher the possibility of reinforcements getting sent in. If that happened, it would be impossible to avoid the complete eradication of Tetsui.
“It must have broken their hearts to open the gates, knowing that starvation awaited them in the future. But Gyousou-sama said that Tetsui had reason on their side and continued to search for common ground, so they must have come away with a sense of his feelings about the matter.”
Tetsui didn’t win and neither did the Palace Guard. Though both were left with nothing to celebrate, bonds were born between them.
“That was why His Highness sent himself into battle,” said Rikei. “But when exactly did all this happen?”
“Well—” Gouhei tilted his head to the side. “A long time ago. I doubt any of the chaps throwing themselves at us on the battlefield are still alive. And most of their children will have likely died of old age by now.”
“Very likely,” Kouryou agreed with a tight smile. “To the people of Tetsui, it’s become a legend. Though we are still alive and lived through it and carry those memories with us.”
Tetsui held a special place in their hearts. They could not overlook the crisis. So Gyousou set out to take back Tetsui from the land gangs and protect the city from the ravages of war.
And then while marching toward Tetsui, Gyousou suddenly vanished.