fter one night in Hokuyou, they continued on their journey with a solemn resolve. Another two days later, a kijuu had been made ready for Kouryuu. The kijuu, known as a kou, resembled an oversized dog, though its coat was spotted like that of a leopard and its head sported a pair of short, arced horns like that of a bull.
Presented with the kou at the inn, Kouryuu couldn’t hide his surprise. “What a fine kijuu!”
Even a member of the air cavalry would be proud to claim such a mount as his own. This wasn’t the kind bought by the wealthy to show off their social status but a kijuu that served the practical needs of a military man. Moreover, this species of kou domesticated well. It’d take a short period of time to familiarize himself with the animal, but once they got used to each other, it should prove to be a good riding kijuu.
Kouryou could only begin to imagine what such a creature must have cost.
Both Kouryou and Risai said, thanking Houto, “Our apologies are in order as much as our gratitude.”
“Oh, apologies are hardly called for!” Houto responded.
But Kouryou knew that imports to Tai had ground to a halt. Kijuu dealers from the Yellow Sea were no exception. The fortunes of Tai were on the wane. As youma proliferated, so it seemed, did the youjuu. There were wranglers willing to capture and train them but in numbers too small to take advantage of the situation. The market had bottomed out and many kijuu traders folded up shop.
Houto must have sweated a lot of details getting his hands on a kijuu as fine as this kou.
“You outdid yourself, finding such a kijuu and in such a short span of time!” exclaimed a similarly impressed Risai.
“We’re on good terms with the shusei,” Houto responded. “Broadly speaking, shusei and kijuu traders are all koushu, citizens of the Yellow Sea, members of the same tribe. Shin’nou like myself who also wander among the kingdoms share strong ties with the shusei, just as we do with the Ministry of Winter and the Taoist and Buddhist Temples. While those of us who root ourselves in society operate above board, as opposed to the shusei who belong to no kingdom and can maneuver behind the scenes, we are nevertheless a band of brothers who travel the same byways and share information and help each other out.”
“Even so, it’s a remarkable accomplishment in times like these—such as the kijuu provender you supplied yesterday.”
The day before, the provender arrived by the time they reached the city. This provender was specially formulated for kijuu of the youjuu family. Kijuu were omnivores who could consume both fodder and grains. Some even fed on rocks and minerals. Still, their physical condition began to degrade without raw meat in their diet, which was hard to obtain in the middle of a march or journey. The provender made up the difference.
Using complex production processes, special kinds of youma meat were reduced to a dehydrated form that was lightweight, compact, and easy to transport. Only the Ministry of Winter made this kijuu provender. It wasn’t the kind of thing otherwise found in the marketplace. Although not impossible, getting hold of kijuu provender outside of official channels was extraordinarily difficult. And yet Houto had it delivered practically to their front door. Taiki’s kijuu, for one, could not be fed raw meat.
“The provender was entrusted to me by a kijuu trader. The only official source is the Ministry of Winter. In fact, kijuu traders make it themselves to feed the kijuu in their stables. You see, the Ministry of Winter got the formulations from the koushu in the first place. As a rule, kijuu traders don’t sell their own supplies, though they will make an exception for their friends.”
Knowing that Taiki could not tolerate the scent of blood, Houto custom ordered the provender for his kijuu, Tora.
“You shin’nou are really something,” Risai said.
“Naw,” Houto answered with a shrug and a smile.
Nevertheless, since setting out on this journey, even Kouryou had been honestly surprised by the resourcefulness of the shin’nou and the information networks they had access to. I never imagined what they were truly capable of.
Kouryou had known shin’nou since he was a child. The only shin’nou he knew back then were traveling merchants who visited the village on a seasonal basis and sold medicinal goods. To a child, they were people from afar who came bearing curious toys and telling fascinating tales. To an adult, the arrival of the shin’nou was a sign of the seasons and an opportunity to talk over any health concerns.
That had been the extent of Kouryou’s awareness of the shin’nou. “And a pretty lacking awareness at that!” he ruefully admitted over dinner at the inn where they were staying.
Risai nodded. “Same with me.”
They were in Risai and Taiki’s room. As a rule, Houto arranged for them to stay only at the homes or inns of supporters of Zui’un Temple. Generally speaking, the inns ranged from the top of the lowest quality tier to the bottom of the middle quality tier. Though with a shin’nou making the arrangements in advance, they could settle into their lodgings and enjoy a meal and trust that the kijuu were being seen to out of the public eye.
“At the same time, it does all stand to reason.”
“Stand to reason?” Kouryou queried.
“Gyousou-sama always granted the shusei a special place at his table. I image the shusei are much like the shin’nou.”
“Ah, yes. That stands to reason as well.”
“It does, doesn’t it? Speaking of which, Gashin did the same. He was on good terms with both the shusei and the shin’nou.”
“Was he? Well, Gashin set himself apart when it came to gathering military intel.”
“The tiniest bit of enigmatic information can shape the grandest of strategies,” Risai said with a smile.
Houto chuckled. “When you’re breaking bread with the shusei and shin’nou, the rumor mongering alone can be worth a small fortune.”
“No doubt,” Risai agreed. “Speaking of which, would the shusei have any idea where Gyousou-sama might be? What do the rumors have to say on that subject?”
Houto’s face clouded over. “Unfortunately, I haven’t heard a thing since he arrived in Bun Province. The complete lack of news is as strange as anything else, that’s what the shusei and shin’no say.”
“Any news of his retainers?”
“Plenty of rumors about seeing his generals on the run here and there. I couldn’t tell you who is doing the seeing. The veracity of such incidents is difficult to confirm. They are doing a good job staying out of sight.”
Risai mused, “Staying out of sight—someone is giving them shelter, I wonder?”
Houto tilted his head to one side and puzzled over this question. Risai added, “I don’t think that, relying solely on their own resources, even Eishou and Sougen could stay so well hidden that not a single word leaked out. Whether wandering around alone like Kouryou, or based in a specific area and hiding out there, the support of the surrounding community is indispensable, people with heart and integrity to skillfully cover for them. Such as the people of Touka.”
“Though once you get more than a few in one place,” Kouryou interjected, “rumors are bound to get out. They might have scattered and are keeping a low profile.”
Houto didn’t appear at all convinced. “We’re talking about four armies, right? That many people dispersing would inevitably show up on the roads and in the cities and towns. It’s hard to imagine how they could all stay hidden. Makes me thing that there must some sort of organization supporting them behind the scenes.”
“You have a point there.”
“In which case, they’d need money to maintain that support. Where would those funds come from?”
Risai thought about it for a minute. “There are estates that could furnish those funds. Though in my case, those assets were seized by the government.”
“Because Risai-sama was branded a rebel,” Kouryou pointed out. “Having been labeled a criminal made it that much easier to confiscate her property. My estate was forfeited on grounds of desertion, though I was able to liquidate the assets before that happened.”
“Did the soldiers who resolved to desert and disperse have the time and resources to do likewise?”
“It was very last minute and not all could have managed it in time. But then what of the Imperial Treasury? One way or the other, it seems Gashin conspired with Seirai to smuggle out whatever he could.”
Taiki craned his head with a dubious expression. “The Imperial Treasury—isn’t it located within the Imperial Repository and contains the assets of the kingdom? Could Gashin have smuggled out much of anything by himself?”
Kouryou answered, “Ah. Of course, it is possible. The physical assets in the Imperial Treasury are mostly in the form of grain, along with precious minerals and other specialty items. But they aren’t kept in the Imperial Repository. Some are stored in regional warehouses. The largest portion are consigned to merchants in the marketplace. The merchants receive those assets on deposit and issue promissory notes. When the kingdom reclaims those assets, they are returned in the form of goods or money. So the Imperial Treasury actually exists as the entries recorded in the ledgers.”
“Ah. And then—”
“Without the promissory notes, the kingdom can’t redeem those assets. Even if the kingdom were to invoke the power of the state and demand repayment, lacking the ledgers, they wouldn’t know where and from whom to redeem those notes. Smuggle out those ledgers and keep them under wraps and Asen would be forced to fund the government with forcibly expropriated goods, new tax revenues, and public debt.”
Houto nodded. “It seems Asen is issuing enormous amounts of debt. That together with the mountain of liabilities left over from the dynasty of Emperor Kyou has left the finances of the kingdom in an impoverished state. So when officials supporting His Highness are executed or exiled, those empty positions go unfilled.
Taxes grew all the heavier. Localities that didn’t cooperate in collecting the levies got cut off from government support. During the winter, these communities in Tai had long depended on support from the kingdom. The result was to thrust them immediately into poverty.
“That’s why the province lords of Ran, Ba, and Gai so readily raised their hands and aligned themselves with Asen’s camp. I Province and Jou Province saw their province lords executed and their replacements assigned from Asen’s inner circle.”
“I heard the illness has spread to Sui Province.”
“I heard the same. The province lords of Bun and Kou are under the weather as well. Of Tai’s nine provinces, none stand against Asen.”
“I figured as much,” Risai muttered.
Kouryou sighed to himself. There was nobody in power left to trust. Confirming the truth once again left him numb and depressed.
“Officials in every province who show any kind of a negative attitude in public are reassigned at best and executed at worst. Fearing the worst, not a few of them quit at the first opportunity and head for the cities, hoping disappear among the crowds.”
Nevertheless, government officials with character and courage who stayed put and remained in their posts were not all hunted down. Here and there across the kingdom were those who, while bowing down to Asen, held their ground and did their best to save the people. The people of Tai clung to their compassionate works like the lifelines they were.
“And yet their numbers dwindle year by year. The fortunes of Heaven are on the wane. Youma are on the rise. Even in Ten Shire, last year’s winter took many of its citizens by spring.”
Houto’s words were met by a blanket of glum silence.