Hills of Silver Ruins

Chapter 14

3-6 An unexpected knock at the door brought Kouryou back to the present.

Encouraged by Kyoshi and Houto, he’d gotten absorbed in the story and the night had grown long. Houto got to his feet and opened the door. Risai was standing there.

“Is something the matter?”

“Oh, nothing. I saw the light from your room and heard you talking. The Taiho can’t sleep so I was getting him something warm to drink.”

“In that case, I’d be happy to.”

“That’s fine. I’ll take care of it. But as long as you’re up, we can make enough for you too.”

Houto thanked her with a bow. Exiting the room into the main hall, the three of them found Taiki waiting there.

“Our chatter wasn’t keeping you awake, was it?”

“Not at all. Just having a hard time settling down. How about yourselves?”

The night before, Kyoshi had hardly slept at all. But now, after a day on the road, he was wide awake and not sleepy in the slightest.

“Kouryou was telling us about the events in Bun Province.”

p. 169

“Ah,” Risai said with a nod.

The previous night, while Kyoshi was running around making preparations for the journey, Risai and Kouryou talked with Taiki until dawn. So Kouryou was probably covering ground that Risai and Taiki were already familiar with

Houto cheerfully lit a fire in the hibachi. He heated a kettle and then rummaged about the kitchen for a tray and a set of cups.

“So there’s no truth to the claim that the White Pheasant uttered its last cry?” Houto asked as he brewed the tea.

Risai nodded. “I was headed to Jou Province at the time. The Nisei-shi—the minister charged with the care the White Pheasant—rushed into camp. He personally witnessed Asen fabricating the supposed last cry.”

“Another scheme the Pretender—Asen—dreamed up,” Houto said with a sigh. “Push come to shove, what sort of chap is this Asen? I’ve heard tell that he is a capable general. If memory serves, after Emperor Kyou died, Asen was the odd-on favorite to be his successor. I take it that until certain facts came to light, nobody harbored any doubts to the contrary.”

Risai, Kouryou, and Taiki exchanged glances.

“No, not at the time,” Kouryou said. “We didn’t suspect a thing until we received that dispatch from Risai.”

p. 170

“I didn’t either,” said Risai. “Not until I met the Nisei-shi. Before departing for Jou Province, a friend of mine expressed misgivings about Asen, but I couldn’t bring myself to believe them. Asen had always ranked alongside Gyousou-sama in his generalship. His political talents matched his skills in military matters. He could reason without succumbing to his emotions and was popular among his men. Gyousou-sama often acknowledged Asen’s abilities, as did junior officers like ourselves.”

“He was warmly regarded by my fellow regimental commanders. None of us imagined him capable of high treason. Even now I find it hard to believe.”

“Does he have personal connections to Bun Province?” Kyoshi asked.

“I don’t know. Certainly nothing out in the open. I can’t think of any one person tying Asen to Bun Province. To start with, when the riots involving the land gangs broke out there, Asen wasn’t even in Tai.”

Taiki nodded. “I was visiting the Imperial Ren of the Kingdom of Ren. Asen accompanied me.”

p. 171

Risai added, “He got back just before the decision to dispatch troops to Bun Province. When the decision was made to send a punitive expedition to Bun Province, General Asen’s name wasn’t on the table. By sending in the Palace Guard, His Highness wished to let the people of Bun Province know that reestablishing peace and order was his top priority. Because Asen had so recently returned from his trip abroad, it was also only natural to exclude him from consideration for leader of the expedition. To be sure, none of his soldiers had accompanied him abroad and were still in barracks. But the long journey had just concluded, leaving him with little time to prepare to depart for the front. Common sense argued against making him run around in a frenzy getting ready.”

Kouryou said, “Up until that point, I hadn’t even heard any rumors of discord between His Highness and Asen. Or rather, at least when it came to outward appearances, everything was going smoothly. Before that message arrived from Risai, no one had any reason to doubt Asen. Once we knew that Asen was the traitor, we figured his personal detail carried out the attack. They were, after all, Asen’s subordinates, and they disappeared at the same time. They somehow caught His Highness by surprise and struck him down. Except he didn’t die. The logical conclusion is that they hauled him away with them. But after talking it over with Eishou, that doesn’t seem very likely either.”

Gyousou disappeared. The column came to a halt. Ever-expanding search efforts commenced. At first, the land gangs caught the blame for the attack. Any suspicious persons and any suspicious baggage came under close scrutiny. The army was no exception. Agents of the land gangs could have infiltrated the engineering and transportation crews or the day laborers hired from the local communities to work around the camp. The area was searched for anything Gyousou might have had on his person, and for anyone carrying weapons that suggested nefarious intent.

p. 172

“In the end, we didn’t find a single thing of any use.” And, Kouryou added, they were none the wiser about what had happened. “Under normal circumstances, a comprehensive investigation into what had happened would be absolutely necessary. However—”

The army sent to Bun Province was in chaos. Searching for Gyousou, on the one hand, while Sougen returned to Kouki by air with his senior officers to report on the developing situation. At the same time, the now leaderless troops from Asen’s army were placed under the command of Regimental Commander Hinken and ordered back to Kouki. Taking their place, Gashin was dispatched from Kouki with his army to subjugate the land gangs.

With his forces fully engaged, Gashin had, for the time being, pacified Bun Province by May. Except like falling dominoes, then came news of violence breaking out on the Jou Province frontier. Due to her in-depth knowledge of the area, Risai and her army were dispatched to Jou Province. With his troop strength cut in half, Sougen was directed to move his army from Bun Province to Jou Province to support her.

Those orders came from Asen, who already had the Imperial Court at his beck and call. Two weeks later, just as the army led by Risai crossed the border into Jou Province and Sougen was setting off from Bun Province, Gashin and his army were ordered to return to Kouki, the pretext being that the mopping up operation against the land gangs had concluded. However, in order to keep the peace in Bun Province, he was leave half of his soldiers behind.

“What a tangled mess,” muttered a nonplused Houto.

“It certainly was,” Kouryou said with a sour smile. “In fact, there was method in the madness. Start with a punitive expedition, a bunch of reports, a flurry of support missions, and a well-disciplined army chases its own tail hither and yon. The reasons given in each situation sounded reasonable enough to go along with at the time. But taken altogether, the whole thing began to feel wrong. And yet not so wrong that you felt compelled to openly voice disapproval.”

p. 173

Wherever they went, they were castigated for showing up a step behind and a day late. Though no one at the time thought it was strange. And then in June, a blue bird arrived bearing that message from Risai.

“It dawned on us that of all of His Highness’s close associates, only Ganchou-sama remained in Kouki. Moreover, in the meantime, two of his regiments had been dispatched to other provinces, leaving him in Kouki with the remaining three.

Soon after the blue bird arrived, a bulletin from Kouki designated Risai a rebel. On a march to Jou Province, Sougen received orders to execute Risai. Currently bivouacked in Bun Province, Eishou was ordered to do the same. They already knew that Asen was pulling strings behind the scene. At the time, having been recalled to Kouki, Gashin had just departed Bun Province.

“Risai’s troops could do their part in the punitive expedition or be branded rebels as well. That’s what it came down to.”

Asen made it look like he was targeting Kouryou and the regimental commanders for overreacting and rebelling. Around this time, rumors suggested that the Minister of Summer had openly cooperated with Risai. Minister Haboku voiced objections to Risai’s designation as a traitor. Rather than standing up for Risai, the rumormongers had an old school retainer like Haboku inciting a newcomer like Risai.

Naturally, Gyousou’s supporters did not view Haboku as an opportunistic manipulator. A backlash was inevitable. Under the pretext that the capital defenses were shorthanded, contingents of the Provincial Guard from all nine provinces—excepting Sui Province—were transferred to the capital. In Kouki, Asen surely lay in wait, hoping to provoke open insubordination and smoke out anyone else loyal to Gyousou.

p. 174

“In the end, together with Eishou’s army, and Sougen-sama and Gashin-sama and their officers, we disbanded in Bun Province, threw away our uniforms and insignias, and left Bun Province.”

Along with the soldiers he commanded, Sougen disappeared in Jou Province. Recalled to defend the capital, a day or two after he arrived in Kouki, Gashin vanished as well.

“I wonder how they are doing.”

Responding to Taiki’s question, Kouryou said, “There’s nothing in the wind about any executions. I’m sure they’re lying low somewhere. But I cannot bring myself to believe that all have fared well.”

In fact, after going on the lam in Jou Province, Risai caught word of many targeted killings. “Kouryou, do you have any idea of where Eishou is presently?”

“Unfortunately, no.”

Kouryou and his fellow commanders scattered in Bun Province. They did not do so in a haphazard or random fashion. They maintained means of communication with Eishou and created a network of contacts with their staff officers and battalion commanders. Rikei was the key link that tied this network together with Eishou

Rikei had assured them he had a solid base of support in his home town where he could go safely underground, but something had happened or someone got to him. Nobody knew what. And only Rikei knew where Eishou and the regimental commanders were headed.

p. 175

“Yet I haven’t heard anything about Eishou being captured or killed. Whatever the circumstances, the information Rikei was privy to didn’t make its way to Asen.”

Whether that was good or bad news, Kouryou couldn’t say.

“I've lost three of my battalion commanders. I told them to split up and lie low. But that’s hard thing to do. Tests a man’s patience. Those three raised a standard of revolt and got killed for their efforts. Those lines of communication we set up are too dangerous to touch now. That, I think, explains the silence of the two remaining battalion commanders.

“How about the others? Do you know what happened to Ganchou after that?”

Gyousou had four key senior staff officers when he was a general—Ganchou, Sougen, Gashin, and Eishou, to whom Kouryou directly reported. All had served in his army as regimental commanders and later became generals in the Imperial Army. The fifth of his regimental commanders, Santou, transferred at the same rank to Ganchou’s staff after the enthronement.

“I haven’t heard of any executions but neither have I heard of anyone seeing Ganchou-sama after that. His army is apparently confined to Kouki but commanded by someone else. The ranks were definitely reorganized.”

It seems that Ganchou’s staff, including Santou, were incorporated into Asen’s army. Though more than a few chose desertion or death, the majority ended up reporting to Asen and were tasked with the defense of the capital.

p. 176

“I see,” Taiki muttered.

Houto said, “Of the six divisions in the Imperial Army, with the exception of Asen’s and the Palace Guard of the Left, four have scattered and dispersed. I haven’t heard a thing about them since. At the very least, the generals have not been captured. However—” Houto smiled and glanced at Risai. “Rumors circulated that Risai-sama had been assassinated. It’s good to see you alive and well.”

Risai managed a wry smile in response. “Let’s just say that Kouryou and his fellow commanders wisely chose to beat a hasty retreat. Asen was surely offended by the mere existence of Gyousou-sama’s senior staff. Not only that, stick them in Kouki and he risked getting stabbed in the back. Stick them in the countryside and they could rally their forces and threaten an uprising. Where allegiances were clear, Asen could shake up the command structure, as with Ganchou. Or as in my case, fabricate charges and execute the accused after a drumhead court martial.”

“So that’s how it worked,” Taiki said. “What of the Rikkan? Does anyone know how they have fared?”

Kouryou answered, “I heard the Chousai is dead and the Minister of Heaven disappeared to parts unknown. I do not know what came of him after that. Haboku fled the Imperial Palace but was reportedly captured and executed in I Province. Rousan-sama, the Minister of Winter, remained in the Imperial Palace but was dismissed from her post, and like Ganchou-sama, hasn’t been seen since. Ganchou-sama and Rousan-sama were said to be His Highness’s closest confidents. It is possible that they are being kept captive as hostages somewhere.”

“I see,” Taiki said in a small voice. He’d been close to Ganchou and Rousan as well, and the likelihood of their loss distressed him deeply.

“That’s about all the news I know of. In any case, they’re no longer a part of the government. I understand that Chou’un, the Minister of Spring, resides in the Imperial Palace as the Chousai.”

As if taken aback, Taiki raised his head and furrowed his brows. “Was Chou’un-dono one of Gyousou-sama’s appointees?”

“No,” Risai said. “He became a government official during the reign of the late Emperor Kyou. He hadn’t held any major posts but worked hard and made enough of an impression to win a promotion from Gyousou-sama.”

“Strange that he should side with Asen, don’t you think?” Kouryou grumbled to himself.

“He’s probably Chousai in name only. There’s no telling what condition the government is in these days.”

p. 178

Kouryou nodded. “After that, I guess there’s Seirai-sama. I believe he’s still in Kouki.”

Taiki looked straight at Kouryou. “Is he all right?”

Seirai was Chief Cabinet Secretary of Zui Province and Taiki’s tutor, perhaps the closest to him of all of Gyousou’s retainers.

“I can’t say whether he is or not. Seirai-sama was accused of embezzling from the Imperial Repository. During the chaos before Asen seized the throne. I heard he was arrested by Asen and interrogated within an inch of his life.”

He may have been executed after that. But observing the look on Taiki’s face, Kouryou was loath to let those words escape his mouth.

“I see.”

Taiki’s expression betrayed no signs of relief. He obviously had no difficulty guessing at what Kouryou didn’t say.

“These certainly are tragic times,” Houto said.

The majority of Gyousou’s generals and staff officers and government officials had disappeared. Asen had utterly laid waste to Gyousou’s dynasty.

p. 179

The people had no doubts about what was going on—that Asen had stolen the crown. When Asen initially occupied the throne under the guise of filling in for the absent Gyousou, he was supported and believed. But little by little, the doubts began to grow. Zui’un Temple was the first to voice reservations, and when Zui’un Temple was destroyed, Asen’s usurpation became clear. As a matter of course, voices of censure arose and rallied forces of opposition. None prevailed.

Recollecting the events that brought them to this moment, Kyoshi felt that shiver of dread. Even now, he could not forget the terror and anger of that night. Spurred on all the more by the fury and outrage

was the realization that, having stolen the crown, Asen was doing nothing of use with it.

“Why is Asen casting the people aside?” Kyoshi blurted out. “After going to such lengths to seize the title of emperor, why does he refuse to govern?”

Risai and Kouryou exchanged puzzled looks of their own. When Asen first occupied the throne, he appeared to be in the process of enacting an agenda.

At the time of Gyousou’s enthronement, Tai had suffered under the despotism of Emperor Kyou and then the ten years of an empty throne. Tai wasn’t blessed with a temperate climate. The only food available during the winters and summers in the northern territories was what people had in store. Without assistance from the kingdom, they would starve in short order.

Attempting to return the kingdom to a firm footing, Gyousou took active measures to bestow mercy on those lands. Asen seemed to continue the policy, except the kingdom had been functioning as a kingdom for less than a year. This time around, there was no obvious intent to punish the people. There was simply no charity forthcoming.

Every district was governed according to the expectations of the local governments. The kingdom showed no signs whatsoever of exerting any oversight over their administrations. They were all left to fend for themselves.

p. 180

Houto said, “I’ve heard rumors that General Jou Asen doesn’t even occupy the throne these days.”

The rest of them responded with expressions of mutual bewilderment. Kouryou added, “I’ve heard the same. Some say an assassin already got to him and the throne sits there gathering dust.”

“Is that even possible?” Houto asked.

Risai shook her head. “I do not think the Imperial Court would be able to function without someone there to bind it together.”

“Does that explain why the kingdom doesn’t get anything done? Precisely because the Imperial Court is not functioning?”

“Things can’t continue the way they currently are. Lose the critical center and you’ll see power struggles breaking out among the ministers and bureaucrats. Someone will try to extend his power base and resort to violence to make it happen. If the Imperial Court collapses, the situation will grow all the more chaotic.”

Risai paused and thought about what she had just said, then shook her head once again. “No. At this juncture, I do not think the Imperial Court has fallen apart. For now, the government itself has managed to preserve basic order, doing the bare minimum to keep its own peace and collect taxes. It cannot let an actual rebellion break out. The power is in place to preserve the fundamental semblance of a kingdom. However—”

There would be no rescuing the people.

p. 181

Insects trilled softly outside the window. Day after day, the nights grew colder. The singing insects would soon disappear altogether. Snow followed the frost, after which winter arrived for good, another winter that would deliver life or death to the people of Tai.

Kyoshi thought about the residents of Touka. People died every winter. Even after stocking up in preparation for winter, the question always remained whether their stores would last until spring. With Kyoshi’s departure, and the arrival of Enshi and Ritsu, the community added one more mouth to feed. He could only hope that they all survived the winter and nobody starved.

The next morning, after bidding goodbye to the landlady and thanking her for looking after them, the party departed the little town that seemed more of a hidden village.

To keep their troupe from standing out, Houto kept discretion in mind when choosing the route. They stoically tread the deserted roads and by dusk arrived at a run-down city.

Before entering the city, Taiki stopped and glanced back over his shoulder at the evening sky.

Risai asked, “What is it?”

“Do the city gates close at sundown?”

“Yes. And once they close, they will not budge until morning.”

“Is the time predetermined or does it change with the setting of the sun?”

“With the setting of the sun. They follow the times listed in the almanac for sunrise and sunset.”

p. 182

“Ah.” Taiki nodded. He diverted his gaze from Risai and once again looked up at the darkening sky. The autumn sky was stained a madder red, entirely appropriate for the season.

“What?”

Taiki murmured, “After this, the distance we can cover every day will grow shorter too.”

His voice was swept away by a passing fall breeze. They arrived at a small, quiet city called Hokuyou. As Houto promised, horses were waiting for them there.

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