Hills of Silver Ruins

Chapter 17

4-3 Now that Kouryou was equipped with a kijuu, he and Risai and Taiki parted ways with Houto and Kyoshi every morning and scouted the road ahead. Eyeing the highway from a distance, they flew over the countryside until they identified a town just short of their destination. There they waited for Houto and Kyoshi to arrive on horseback.

All that waiting felt like so much wasted time—or at least that was the sense Kouryou got from the thoughtful Taiki.

“Don’t you think we could give Houto and Kyoshi a ride?”

Kouryou answered with a wry grin. Every day, it seemed, since Kouryou got his own kijuu, Taiki had posed the question in a roundabout fashion. Today he cut to the chase.

“Houto and Kyoshi can’t ride kijuu.”

“I’m pretty sure Tora and Hien wouldn’t mind.”

“It’d place an extra burden on the kijuu.”

“But if we took more rest stops going forward?”

“Well, there is that—”

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“Using kijuu, we wouldn’t have to follow the highway and could cover a lot more ground at once.”

Kouryou shook his head. “I’m sorry, but we can’t put too much distance between us and the road ahead. Bypass the highway and we’d lose the use of the inns along the way.”

“How about taking more shortcuts? Rather than winding around the mountains, wouldn’t it be a lot faster to fly over them?”

That simply will not work, Kouryou wanted to say, but hesitated, unsure of how to politely express himself.

Sensing his bewilderment, Risai said, “The Young Master’s earnest but unreasonable proposals have left Kouryou in a muddle.”

“Unreasonable?”

“The Young Master suggests crossing the mountains by air in one fell swoop. But in what direction should we fly and how would we determine which way to go?”

“With a map?”

Risai grinned. “I take it that such detailed and accurate maps are easily obtained in Hourai where the Young Master grew up. However, such maps do not exist here.”

The maps available to the general public were mostly rough guides that identified the major landmarks and estimated the distances. They were good for identifying the towns and cities along the highways and how many days it took to travel between them. But not much beyond that.

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While the land registries maintained by the government were based on detailed surveys, they were limited to farmland and residential property. Created for each administrative region separately, areas where people didn’t live tended to get left out. The military drafted precise topographical maps during times of war, but the geographical scope of these maps was limited and the maps themselves were rarely revised except out of necessity.

“Hypothetically speaking, even given a sufficiently accurate map, how would you place yourself on that map and know where you were at any given time?”

When he got to a city, a traveler could at least determine what city that was. But away from the city, there was no way to know exactly where he was. No matter how accurate, a map would be of little practical use without the ability to locate himself on the map.

“What if you confirmed it yourself? Observing the terrain from the air would give you an unobstructed view of the surrounding area.”

“An unobstructed view on level ground. But a lot of details get lost in the mountains and forests.”

It was possible to navigate using the sun and the stars. The military relied on such methods, though this approach depended either on the existence of precise maps or the creation of precise maps during the march.

“To get to a city in question, you stick to the highway and make a note of all the cities you pass through along the way. Even if you don’t use the highways themselves, you’d best keep them in view or risk losing your way.”

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Taiki fell silent and Risai smiled. “Thinking that leaving the highways will get you there faster is a common enough mistake, especially on the ground. While proceeding straight north seems a natural approach in theory, the obstructions presented by the topology and the forests and other natural features means there is no way to actually do so in practice. Once you stray from the line tying your starting point to your objective, you’ll never get to where you want, no matter how far north you travel.”

In fact, relying on an innate “sense of direction” was difficult enough to start with. Maintaining a given course was practically impossible without a magnetic compass. Even knowing the direction, heavily forested areas had to be avoided and mountains detoured around. Rivers had to be forded where the water didn’t run too fast or too deep. Simply climbing and descending hilly ground presented its own challenges. There was no way to travel in a straight line when forced to follow the only paths that provided good footing. Add up all those twists and turns and it was easy to wander off course.

“Take to the air on a kijuu and at first glance everything looks clear. But that’s a hole you don’t want to fall into either. No forests get in your way and the land won’t rise and fall. But you still have to navigate the mountains. You can’t see through a mountain and have to detour around the high peaks as well. In particular, in mountainous terrain, after a couple of detours you lose track of where you are. And once that happens, you’ll never get to where you’re going even if you know the direction.”

On the other hand, flying high enough to skirt the mountains completely made it difficult to recognize the landmarks below. Any town surrounded by trees completely disappeared into the countryside.

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“Above the Sea of Clouds, you can reliably follow a compass. That’s how we returned here from Kei. But that was only possible because kijuu know the scent of the land. Point them in the right direction and kijuu will seek out the land on their own. The only land found above the Sea of Clouds are the Ryou’un Mountains. Knowing the distance flown and the direction and the geographical features rising above the Sea of Clouds, you can do a good job of guessing what mountain it is.”

“So if we set off across the Sea of Clouds from a Ryou’un Mountain and headed straight for Bun Province—”

Risai shook her head. “There is a Ryou’un Mountain called Mount You in the northern quarter of Bun Province. But there is no way to descend from the summit of Mount You to the ground. Moreover, there are no cities above the Sea of Clouds and very few below. If you took Kyoshi and Houto with us over the Sea of Clouds, we’d need someplace to rest the kijuu on a regular basis. There is no place like that there. Hien does not have the stamina to carry two people directly to Bun Province without a rest.”

Risai added in a sympathetic tone, “The Taiho being by nature a kirin means he has a lighter frame. If push comes to shove, we could both ride Hien. So I can’t say the idea would be impossible to carry off. Tora is a smart kijuu and I think he’d be willing to carry Houto and Kyoshi. However, only as a last recourse. Getting to Bun Province is only part of the objective. We need to gather actionable information along the way too.”

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“I understand,” Taiki said, hanging his head in an abashed manner.

For the time being, at least, Taiki gave up on the idea of racing ahead, though while waiting for the other two in their party to catch up, he said he wanted to go into the town. That day, after hiding the kijuu in the countryside, they approached the gate. The gate was open but they weren’t allowed to enter.

“Times must be tough,” Taiki observed empathetically.

“You can’t take things at face value,” Risai consoled him. “Even if they were running a surplus, if all the surrounding villages closed their gates and only one left them open, then all the passers-by with no place else to go would flock there.”

Taiki nodded, though more out of pity for the town’s inhabitants.

“We’ve left Ten Shire. The villages around here are probably not as poor as Touka. Still, the mornings are growing colder. Everybody’s thoughts are turning inward as they prepare for winter.”

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Taiki nodded here too and glanced back at the gate from which they’d been turned away. The gates were open but guards hovered inside just the entrance to prevent them from entering. Forming a kind of invisible wall, two skinny kids sat on the ground drawing pictures with pieces of white chalk on the cobblestones. An even skinnier old man squatted nearby, adjusting the collar of his cloak as he watched over them.

A sign of poor health perhaps, their eyes appeared jaundiced and their complexions were ashen.

After observing the scene, Taiki turned to Risai. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that they’ve got problems other than poverty. Can’t we at least give them medicine or some nutritional food?”

Risai shook her head. “We can’t. It must be unbearable given what you can see with your own two eyes, but please be prudent. Our generosity would only ensure that they remember us later.”

“But—”

“Under normal circumstances, they won’t remember who we are and won’t care where we came from. But once we start giving alms, we would be remembered as kind-hearted travelers with enough to spare. And among them, some might read that as meaning we were easy marks.”

Taiki held his tongue in evident bewilderment.

“What I’m say is, kind-hearted travelers with enough to spare do not seek out lodging in little villages. Because impoverished little villages have been known to assault travelers like that.”

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Illustration

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Taiki looked silently back at Risai.

“I know it is painful to hear me say things like this, but as long as you reveal no such weaknesses and present no opportunities, no matter how impoverished they are, the impetus to commit such a crime should not arise. I’m asking you to be patient enough to not create incentives for wrongdoing where there need not be any.”

“Yes,” answered a clearly disheartened Taiki.

Kouryou spoke up at this point. “Simply doing your best to not stand out is all we’re asking. If something does happen down the road, making ourselves memorable in the wrong way could put anyone who remembers us at risk too.”

“I understand.” Taiki finally nodded.

Noting his assent, Risai also turned and watched the guileless children drawing on the cobblestones. Their gaunt shoulders alone were enough to arouse sympathy. The complexion of the old man squatting next to them and that of the villagers manning the gate left no doubt that this village was already running short on provisions.

They should have brought in a harvest during the fall. And yet they are already in distress. How will they survive the winter?

Any thought of where these children would end up was altogether depressing. No small wonder that Taiki—the kirin—should feel the pain of that knowledge in his bones.

Risai accompanied the glum and silent Taiki back to the kijuu, where they waited for Houto and Kyoshi to catch up.

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Houto and Kyoshi arrived before too long. Reading the mood, Houto said, “Sorry to keep everybody waiting. Something happen here?”

Risai explained the situation. Houto said with a wry smile, “Certainly it’s better not to stand out. But we can’t always be so cautious. In the first place, our appearances make it clear at a glance that we’re hardly at the end of our ropes.” Then he added, “Wait here a little while longer, okay? I’ll run over and see what I can do. Visiting as a purveyor of herbal medicines should be a good enough excuse to leave some samples behind.”

“You’re not going to make trouble for yourself, are you? Kouryou asked. “Won’t you be cutting in on the territory of another shin’nou?”

“Well, it’s no way to win any praise, but making up for a shortfall in their medicine supply shouldn’t present a problem. Tanshou-sama can see to it that the shin’nou who operates in this territory gets compensated.”

With that bit of big-hearted confidence, Houto raced his horse to the village. He returned a short time later.

Taiki ran forward and called out, “Is everything okay?”

Since Risai and Kouryou had been threatened by the guards when they first approached the village, he’d fretted about Houto’s well-being.

Houto answered with a big smile. “Everything’s fine! The kids had gone home already but the old man was still there. He certainly didn’t look in the best of health. When I suggested some remedies, he said he didn’t have any money. So I said they could have it on credit and left a couple of packets with him. Thinking that others in the village might be running low, I left a few more with the guards. They were all very happy.”

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“Wonderful,” Taki quietly exulted.

“They had a long spell of rain during this year’s harvest and the crops rotted in the fields. The prefectural governor in charge of the region seems a good and wise man and he promised to deliver the minimal necessary food supplies until winter.”

“That does give me some peace of mind. Houto, thank you very much.”

“No, no,” Houto said with a smile and a bright tone of voice. “That’s why I’ve been hauling this around on my back.” He stood and proceeded first down the road, raising his hand over his shoulder and pointing at the pack as he spoke.

“But doesn’t a donation take away from a sale?”

“A day I don’t do any business can be a good day too. Even I have to take a break now and then.”

Houto’s garrulous and glad-handing manner made Taiki smile. “Does that go for all shin’nou?”

“Hmm. Hard to say. We come in all types, don’t you know.” A genial smile rose to his face.

They couldn’t stay at the inn in the city they arrived at the next day. They had now finally moved beyond the scope of people like them from Touka.

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“When it comes to inns that take in kijuu as well, I’m afraid I’m out of my depth. Perhaps Kyoshi should ask for shelter at a Taoist temple.”

Following Houto’s advice, Kyoshi inquired at the temple in the city. The letter that Enchou had prepared for such an occasion yielded results. They were welcomed into the temple but received a cool reception from the priests, the unspoken criticism being that anybody traveling with kijuu should have the wherewithal to stay at an inn.

“I apologize,” said an abashed Kyoshi, though it was hardly his fault. Nor was it the fault of the temple. Though this temple was said to be the biggest in the city, it was clearly in financial straits. It received no public assistance and those otherwise willing to offer support did not have the means to do so.

Houto said in a bright and encouraging voice, “We’ll get to Sekijou tomorrow.”

Situated at the crossroads of the major highways from Kou Province to Bun Province and from Kou Province to Zui Province, Sekijou was the largest city in the region.

“Past Sekijou, the road starts to climb, and when we get to the top, we’re in Bun Province.” Houto grinned. “See, we really are moving forward.”

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