6-2 Over half a month had passed by the time Risai, Kyoshi, and Houto arrived at Rin’u.
Situated in the southeast, Rin’u was the largest city in Bun Province. During the subjugation campaign against the land gangs, this was where the Imperial Army set up camp, where the Imperial Army brought the fight to the land gangs, and where the Imperial Army disintegrated and dispersed.
As a result, this was where the eradication operations against Gyousou’s senior staff also took place. When Risai started her search for Gyousou, she came first to Rin’u. But on the run as she was, she couldn’t get anywhere near the city.
This was the first time in a long time that she had seen Rin’u up close.
Rin’u rose majestically in the middle of a high plateau, the long slope of the mountain at its back. The tall and wide barrier wall enclosing the city climbed the gentle undulations of the foothills up to the mountainside. Within the walls, the buildings crowded together as if to form a single tiled roof.
From the vantage point where Risai and her companions paused along the road, the city spread out as it ran up the rising slope. What must be the prefectural castle occupied a promontory toward the back of the city, ringed by the castle wall. Buildings that looked like temples continued on to the right and left along a mountainside carpeted with green.
The city unfurled along the slope beneath these palatial buildings. Situated at the lowest point of the slope was the soaring multistoried structure of the Horse Gate. Strung together like links in a chain, the shops, booths, and street stalls spilled forth from the city, crowding the shoulders of the long, straight road that neatly divided the broad plain outside the barrier wall.
Far beyond the shops and stalls and throngs of people, craggy mountains pierced the clouds. Together these four Ryou’un Mountains were called the You Range. Risai and her band were headed toward the southernmost peak, known as Kan’you Mountain.
“A Taoist temple called Fukyuu Temple is located here,” Kyoshi explained as they passed through the Horse Gate. “Enchou-sama said that’s where we should go. A blue bird was sent ahead of us with the necessary details, so the abbot should be informed of our situation and be ready to receive us.”
Risai nodded. The blue bird that Kyoshi mentioned was unlikely to be the same species of blue bird used by the government. The blue birds deployed by the civil service and the military in their communication networks were enchanted you birds, distant relatives of the youma.
Under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Summer, the chicks were harvested from the riboku in the administrative castle. Surplus birds were sold to civilians, though they were so terrifically expensive that only those with means could hope to lay their hands on one. As a result, most people relied on common carrier pigeons and inexpensive you birds like the meng.
But as a class, all birds used for communication purposes were called blue birds.
With Houto taking the lead, they passed through the gate. They were struck at once by the lively atmosphere of the city. The main boulevard bustled with pedestrians and wagons, the stores on both sides of the street busily doing business. Many travelers led kijuu like Risai and not a few wore swords and gave off a martial air.
And yet, an aura of barely contained chaos hung over the city. The colors of disarray and decay stained every surface. Bands of rough men and refugees seemed a constant presence. Civility and moral discipline had long gone to the dogs
“Except nothing here suggests the aftermath of a war or a natural disaster,” Risai muttered to Houto.
“Because Rin’u itself is in the eye of the hurricane, untouched by the winds of war. The armies set up camp in the surrounding fields but the actual fighting took place to the north of Rin’u and in cities to the west.”
“Ah,” Risai said with a nod. Though it was surely caught up in the mopping up operation after the Imperial Army disbanded, she thought as they wended their way through the throngs.
They continued along the gently rising foothills. The mountain rose like the back wall of the city. The citadel soared above a ridge that jutted toward the city center. The prefectural castle, by all expectations, though the immense scale more closely matched that of a district fortress.
Vibrant green covered the slopes that reached out to the left and right of the fortress, dotted with clusters of buildings large and small. Houto headed straight toward the mountain. Halfway up the hillside, they turned off the road and climbed stone steps until the tiled roofs of Fukyuu Temple finally came into view.
The simple but sturdy temple gate was shut. Fukyuu Temple belonged to the Zui’un branch of Taoism. Unlike many Taoist temples, Kyoshi explained, it was not a destination for pilgrimages but a place for the study of the Taoist disciplines, and had taken up the responsibility of protecting and preserving the science and technology developed at Zui’un Temple.
Hence the shuttered gates. Risai grasped that much, except when the doors opened in response to Kyoshi’s hail, she could see that the grounds inside were crowded with the poor and needy.
Kyoshi introduced himself with a bow. “I am Kyoshi from Tokushi Temple.”
The priest who opened the gate offered a polite bow in turn. “The abbot has informed me of your situation. My name is Ki’itsu. I am the prefect at this temple.”
The prefect was a priest who took on the role of instructor in directing the student priests in their studies.
“The abbot is waiting for you. Please.”
He motioned for them to enter and they followed him inside the temple gate. They climbed a cobblestone path toward the top of the foothills. The buildings of Fukyuu Temple were suffused with history, each bearing a distinctive quality of its own.
The large number of people occupying the grounds arounds the buildings was another matter entirely. The walls surrounding the ancestral hall were strung with tarpaulins. Women tended cooking fires on the raised platform inside the walls. Small huts dotted a courtyard populated mostly, it seemed, by scampering children and chickens.
Risai found the sight perplexing. Kyoshi was equally taken aback. “Ki’itsu-sama,” he asked, no doubt puzzled by a scene foreign to any temple he’d previously visited, “who are these people?”
Risai had long heard that entering the priesthood for academic and ascetic pursuits had a rich tradition in the northern provinces of Tai. But none of these people wore indigo clerical robes. They certainly didn’t look like Taoists there to study and otherwise discipline their minds.
“Just call me Ki’itsu,” he said calmly. “They are refugees who lost their homes and hamlets.”
“You’re offering shelter to refugees?”
“That’s what it comes down to. For the time being, they came to the temple and declared their intention to become Taoists.”
Having taking note of the people around him, those in the immediate vicinity bowed to him. He bowed to each of them in turn.
“The fact of the matter is, they have no place else to go. At the bare minimum, the Taoist and Buddhist temples provide them with a meal and shelter from the elements. Many take the tonsure simply to survive. Many more have come to the mountain during these times of poverty and distress. The result is what you see before you.”
A wry smile rose to Ki’itsu’s gaunt face.
“Though when the numbers grow to this size, there’s not much in the way of training and study going on. They came here in the first place because they had no place else to go. They’re not really here to become priests and monks. When circumstances improve, most will return to their secular lives, so there is little point in spending much time and effort on religious education. Under the guise of waiting to take the tonsure, we let them stay.”
Ki’itsu added in a small voice, “We couldn’t actually fend off the outside forces arrayed against us. Allowing these unfortunately folk to gather here in large numbers invites suspicions that we are fomenting rebellion. An investigation by the Provincial Guard becomes all but inevitable.”
Kyoshi asked, “The Provincial Guard is that unforgiving?”
“Only the rika are officially allowed to taken in refugees and the indigent. Unfortunately, none of the rika around here are equipped to do so. They lack the provisions to feed every stranger who knocks on their doors. At the same time, we cannot abandon those in our care.”
Which was the real reason why the gate was shut, Ki’itsu explained.
“We admitted them in the first place with the expectation that we could somehow deal with the situation. Alas, we have long past exceeded the capacity of the temple. We cannot see to the needs of any more people. We had no choice but to close the gates.”
“So that’s what it’s come down to,” Kyoshi said, surveying his surroundings as they walked along.
The strange scene had taken over Fukyuu Temple as far as the eye could see. Any spare land had been turned into gardens, the courtyard of the ancestral shrines into livestock pens. Laundry hung from the cloister railings. The refugees had settled into huts that now occupied every available inch beneath the overhanging eaves. Where the slanting rays of the sun reached into these makeshift dwelling, the vacant eyes of those within reflected the hard reality of their impoverished state.
“Given the situation, we can offer you only so much assistance,” Ki’itsu apologized as he led them to the sculpted grove alongside the lecture hall.
What had been a beautifully sculpted grove now grew vegetables. The once breathtaking placement of placid water, mossy rocks, and grove of trees, their low-hanging branches twined together, was home to pigs and poultry. And yet there still wasn’t enough to eat. None of the refugees had eaten a full meal in quite some time, hence their enervated condition.
“Here,” Ki’itsu said, showing them into a study in the lecture hall.
The old abbot of Fukyuu Temple came to the vestibule to greet them. His name was Joukan.
“The grounds of the temple must have caught you by surprise. We regret not being able to offer you a more peaceful respite.”
“And we apologize for imposing on you at such trying times as these. You have done more than enough by going out of your way for us,
“No, no, no,” said Joukan. He escorted them into the study and seated them at the chairs around the desk. “That Enchou-sama made the request is reason enough. The refugees and ourselves have long relied on the medicines formulated at Zui’un Temple.”
Joukan glanced at Ki’itsu. With a knowing nod, Ki’itsu secured the doors to the study and shuttered the windows. A lit lamp illuminated the dim interior.
Having confirmed that the necessary measures had been taken, Joukan said, “We heard from Enchou-sama that Tai has been blessed with a great good fortune.”
“Yes,” Kyoshi answered with a nod. “This is Risai-sama, a former general in the Zui Provincial Guard. Risai-sama brought the Taiho back to Tai.”
“And the Taiho?”
“The Taiho—” Risai began. “Due to unavoidable circumstances, the Taiho could not accompany us here.”
Joukan drew his white brows together with a questioning look. “Is that so? Well, no, that is probably for the best. Here in Bun Province, the inspections and interrogations have grown severe of late. To tell the truth, I was concerned for the Taiho’s well-being.”
“Does that include Fukyuu Temple well?”
“More recently, raids by government agents have dropped off. Nevertheless, with all the people currently under our roof, rumors from anywhere and about anything can spring to life overnight.”
“I see,” Kyoshi said with a nod. “Let me introduce our guide. This is Houto, a member of the Shin’nou Guild. With all the burdens you are already bearing, we are deeply grateful to you for letting us impose on you like this.”
“You are a member of the Shin’nou Guild?” Joukan greeted him politely. “And you are looking for His Highness?”
“Yes. We believe the best evidence for his whereabouts will likely be found on Kan’you Mountain.”
“The land gangs currently have the run of Kan’you Mountain. Getting close enough to find that evidence could prove a challenge.”
“Are conditions such that you would call it impossible?”
With a grave nod of his head, Joukan added, “However, if I may venture to say so, when His Highness disappeared, the Imperial Army mustered its forces and searched the area, including Kan’you Mountain. Any number of dragnets for rebel groups have been conducted since. I do have to wonder if His Highness will still be found in the area.”
Hearing her uncertainties so clearly stated aloud left Risai in a bit of a muddle. “The fact is, we cannot say anything definite about where he might be at the present moment. At this point, we are willing to grasp at any straw offered us.”
“That certainly does seem to be the case,” Joukan agreed, though in a manner that did little to dispel the lingering air of dejection. Risai couldn’t shake the feeling that Joukan might not be so happy about their visit after all.
Joukan bowed his head for a moment as if deep in thought. Then he straightened and said, “Ki’itsu will see to your needs after this. If any arrangements have to be made, he is more than capable of figuring out what needs to be done.”
With that, Risai, Houto, and Kyoshi bowed deeply to the old Taoist sage.