6-5 Kenchuu led them to an estate not far from Fukyuu Temple. It housed a broken-down building that had seen better days. But they could make good use of it.
Kenchuu handed over the key. That day they moved their things from Fukyuu Temple. There was no way to bring the kijuu without attracting attention, so they left it in the care of the temple stables and brought the horses with them.
Ki’itsu came along as well. They needed someone to look after them, he said. They didn’t want inconvenient Fukyuu Temple more than they already had, but even if they were no longer on the grounds of the temple, clearly Joukan wanted to keep an eye on them. Were they to stir up any trouble, the blame would fall on Fukyuu Temple.
With this in mind, Risai did not protest Ki’itsu’s presence.
As was common in the north, the main wing of the house was deeper than it was wide, with four rooms attached to the central hall. There weren’t any detached buildings to the right and left of the main wing. The narrow courtyards on the east and west were situated in order to allow the main wing at the north end of the property as much exposure to sun as possible.
The south wing of the house was a lean-to used for the stables and sheds, constructed so that the low-pitched roof did not block the sunlight. Though the south wing appeared on the verge of falling down, the sleeping hearth in the main wing was in good working order. Channeled beneath the hearth, the flue from the cooking stove in the kitchen off the west courtyard heated the house.
Scrubbing the water basin, Risai said to herself, “This is the season that calls for a fire in the morning.”
Behind her, Kyoshi lit the stove and agreed with a nod “That’s for certain.”
The residents of Touka would be lighting the fires in the sleeping hearths about now as well. For an old sage like Enchou, with his aching back and joints, this was increasingly a tough time of year. As the villagers bantered back and forth about whether it was colder this year than last, the snow began to fall, at first melting away when it reached the ground, then more and more often freezing and accumulating.
And soon the hard winter would be upon them, a blanket of cold covering the countryside. The snow left the roads impassable and isolated small hamlets in the mountain valleys. And then all anyone had to eat was what they had laid up in store.
Kyoshi wondered as he always did, How many villagers will make it through the winter this year?
During the depths of the winter that accompanied the new year, the food supplies running low, they’d count the days until the snows melted and start rationing the consumables. Seeing the snowpack still high and the stockpiles low, the anxieties grew all the greater. It was a feeling impossible to grow accustomed to, even though that pervasive sense of unease stalked them year after year.
Their thoughts focused on the coming season, the room had fallen into a gloomy silence when Ki’itsu returned from his errand to Fukyuu Temple. A step behind him was a middle-aged woman. She deposited the meager bundle of firewood on her back in a corner of the kitchen.
Looking on, Ki’itsu prefaced her introduction by explaining, “She is one of the refugees staying at Fukyuu Temple.”
Kyoshi and Risai couldn’t help tilting their heads, wondering if she was the hired help. Their puzzled looks notwithstanding, Ki’itsu urged her forward.
With a downward glance in lieu of a bow, the woman said, “I saw His Highness six years ago.”
That statement immediately seized their attention.
“No, to tell the truth, when I caught sight of him, he was some distance away. It was outside Rin’u. He was riding a magnificent kijuu and wearing black armor. He was far enough away that I really couldn’t make out his face. His white hair made me think at first he was a weathered old general, except the way he rode the kijuu was so regal and the way he moved so full of life.”
A man who appeared old but looked young—a passing stranger clued her in. “That’s the new emperor of Tai,” he explained.
According to the woman, the incident happened soon after Gyousou arrived in Rin’u. Several in her village had also seen him while working on their farms. Spring was not far off and they were shoveling the snow off their huts and sheds.
“I saw him purely by happenstance. But rumors spread soon enough that His Highness had arrived. Hoping to see him for themselves, many of the villagers ran off to a vantage point where they could see the camp.”
For every one among their number who pointed from afar and said that was him, another thought he was in a group over there, and yet more couldn’t make out anything for sure from that distance. As far as the woman knew, she was the only one who’d seen him that close.
“Even though I couldn’t clearly make out his features, I had no doubts in my heart. I just had this feeling about him. I was envied my good luck.”
“Good luck, indeed.” Risai nodded.
“The army camped outside of Rin’u for just a day. Most of the troops soon moved west. The encampment was still there, so some hurried over thinking he was still there. But that wasn’t the case.”
“Because the army left Rin’u the day after they arrived and marched west. How did His Highness appear to you?”
“In good spirits. No signs of apprehension or timidity. At the same time, neither did he appear impatient or agitated. He was surrounded by ranks of stern and solemn soldiers but carried on with them in a cheerful manner, as he might around the campfire. The soldiers he spoke to appeared entirely pleased by his presence. I remember everyone there remarking about how popular he was with the troops.”
“Ah,” said Risai, for she could picture such a scene herself.
Gyousou was born with the blood of a soldier coursing through his veins and was popular among his men. Gyousou as well considered them kindred spirits and conversed with them easily as his band of brothers. Without exception, they were happy to be under his command.
The same was no less true of Risai’s army. Risai’s senior staff had served with her since her days in the Jou Provincial Guard. As a result, she didn’t meet Gyousou until she was appointed a general in the Imperial Army. She hadn’t known Gyousou when he was a general in the Palace Guard. She met him for the first time as emperor. But ever since, simply seeing him raised her spirits.
“His Highness came all the way here to Bun Province to answer our needs. Thinking about him in those terms always left me deeply thankful. When the land gangs first went on the rampage, we had no choice but to adapt to their violent ways. No one was coming to save us. They could sow chaos to their heart’s content and our only choice was to meekly submit and wait them out. Then His Highness dispatched the Palace Guard and clamped down on them overnight.”
The woman pressed her stubby hands against her chest. “When I say how thankful we are, I mean His Highness had not cast aside this godforsaken land. It lifts our hearts to know he spares a thought even for us.”
“Do you know what happened after that?”
“I do. A great uproar erupted over his disappearance. It was said the land gangs must have done something to him. That enraged all of us. Whether he was attacked or abducted, we had to do what we could to help him, and so we searched the countryside every day, looking for any place that looked out of sorts or people that looked out of place.”
“But His Highness was nowhere to be found. While this fruitless search was underway, strange events consumed all of Bun Province. The ranks of the Imperial Army hollowed out. In their place, new troops were dispatched from the capital. And they—”
The woman stopped talking. The new troops were forces loyal to Asen. They began a systematic eradication of Gyousou’s retainers and subordinates. Any village or hamlet caught harboring them was mercilessly put to the torch.
“Bun Province has since fallen into the state you see today. We look back fondly on that brief moment in time when His Highness reigned, and we tell how much better our lives would be had he remained on the throne.” The woman peered at Risai. “Ki’itsu-sama said you were interested in any stories about seeing His Highness. That you are gathering such stories now can only mean you are searching for him.”
For a moment, Risai didn’t reply. Then she said, “We will do whatever we can to save Tai.”
Risai wasn’t sure how the woman would respond but she answered with a deep bow. “I hope what I have told you today will prove helpful. I’ll be sure to mention it to my friends—”
Risai interrupted her at that point. “We appreciate the sentiment, but you should probably keep this exchange to yourself. You simply brought us firewood. Understand?”
The woman nodded, a stiff expression on her face, and after repeated bows left the kitchen. When Ki’itsu returned after seeing her off, Risai asked him, “Ki’itsu-dono, do you think this is going to be all right?”
Ki’itsu only answered with a small smile.
If the refugees set about gathering information, that would increase the risk that somebody would notice something was going on. Especially if that something concerned Gyousou, it’d be easy to jump to the conclusion that forces were arraying themselves against Asen. The refugees were such a motley bunch, there was no way to shut them down or shut them up. Any rumors that started to circulate could cause problems for Fukyuu Temple.
Despite Risai’s concerns, Ki’itsu later brought another woman and then a man by to see them. These two had seen Gyousou from closer distances.
“I lived in Kakyou at the time,” said the man, who had a bad limp.
Kakyou was one of the towns occupied by the land gangs. It was a relatively large town on the highway west from Rin’u. A major conflict occurred there shortly before Gyousou disappeared.
“The land gangs stormed the town and easily occupied the shire castle. The Imperial Army came to drive them out. The battle went on for seven days before the castle was recaptured. After the land gangs fled, I saw the man himself entering the shire castle.”
The woman was a resident of Shikyuu village to the north of Rin’u.
“The land gangs raided Shikyuu as well, but they just came for our money, food, and clothing, and disappeared almost as soon as they’d appeared. Despite taking only our goods, they rampaged about and wounded many in the process. Unlike Kakyou, no battles took place and nobody was killed.”
Not long after the land gangs were subdued, Shikyuu was accused of harboring deserters from the Imperial Army and put to the torch. The majority of the villagers shared the same fate as the soldiers. The woman barely managed to escape with her family to Rin’u and finally made their way to Fukyuu Temple.
“Once the land gangs were sent packing, the Imperial Army replaced the goods taken from us. At the time, word went around that one of the military units outside the town was led by a quite impressive commander that was in fact the emperor. He wore armor trimmed with black silver and rode a kijuu that resembled a tiger.”
“Keito,” Risai muttered to herself. After Keito lost sight of Gyousou, he’d returned to camp by himself. Speaking of which, what had become of Keito?
“And you haven’t seen him since?”
“Well—ahh—” she mumbled.
“If you know anything at all, please let us know.”
“The thing is, what I know is—”
Ki’itsu gently encouraged her to continue. “Won’t you tell us? Of course, nothing you say here will be repeated outside these walls.”
“No, that’s fine. You see, I did catch sight of him.”
“Not at the camp but not far from the camp. I can’t rightly recall the finer details.” An awkward smile rose to her face and she turned to leave. Ki’itsu retrained her and in soothing tones urged her relate the rest of the story.
“I happened to visit a small shrine not far from the village and saw him in the nearby woods. He wasn’t wearing his armor but that kijuu was with him, the one like a tiger, so I am sure he was His Highness.”
The shrine was adjacent a small hillock formed from boulders piled atop each other. Evergreens rooted here and there in the gaps between the rocks formed a sparse grove of trees that didn’t obstruct the view.
“He was with two or three others. They appeared to be discussing something. And one of them—” Her voice faltered, her downcast eyes focused aimlessly on the ground. “A military man wearing garish red and black armor. I will never forget his repellent countenance. After the conflict with the land gangs, he was the one in charge when they laid waste to Shikyuu and hunted us down like animals.”
“Laid waste to Shikyuu—so a member of Asen’s army?”
The woman nodded. “I believe so. It was hardly human, the way he slaughtered women and children with unbridled glee.”
She spit the words out with unrestrained disgust. The precise details of her story were hard to make out, but apparently these otherwise ordinary men went on explaining something or other while Gyousou listened without interruption.
Risai thanked her and promised again not to divulge anything she said. Watching as she hurried back to the temple, Risai scoured her memories. Had there ever been such a man among Asen’s officers?
Asen had always been ranked as Gyousou’s equal. He was highly respected as a general, and many of his staff officers had well-earned reputations as exceptional commanders in their own right. Hardly a gang of undisciplined barbarians, his army conducted itself according to form. She couldn’t imagine any soldiers among their ranks so vulgar that they would gleefully hunt down women and children.
The next day, Ki’itsu brought another man to see them, a small man with a tattered and worn air about him.
“I saw His Highness but once,” he said, recalling the scene with evident nostalgia. “I was born in Tetsui.”
“At the time, I was living in Kakyou. I grew up in Tetsui. My work brought me to Kakyou.”
He worked at a business in Kakyou. His parents and siblings remained behind in Tetsui. When the land gangs abandoned Kakyou, they fled toward Tetsui. At the time, a rebel army was advancing on Tetsui from the west. With wild rumors circulating of an imminent invasion, his frightened family reached out to him and they relocated to Kakyou. Many residents in and around Tetsui also sought refuge in Kakyou.
“The people in Tetsui were overjoyed that His Highness decided to come there. Eager to catch a glimpse of him, if only from a distance, many ventured to the military encampments. Nobody could get close enough to pick him out him from the rank and file, though.”
Before that golden opportunity could present itself, the troops broke camp and shifted their forces towards Tetsui. Responding to the heightened risk of an invasion by the land gangs, the Imperial Army took on the mission of defending the city.
“They weren’t going to let us anywhere near the battlefield so this was our last good change. Together with my brother, we chased after the Imperial Army.”
That was when his brother suggested that they might be able to see him if they ran ahead and waited in the mountains. Not far on, the highway crossed a range to the southwest of Kan’you Mountain. The highway climbed a gentle rise out of Kakyou. There was a town at the crest of the grade. Past that town, the highway cut through a low-rising mountain ridge.
From atop that ridge, they thought they might be able to spot Gyousou as he marched with his troops through the pass.
“We expected the army to arrive at the town in the evening and set up camp there. My brother and I got there ahead of time and climbed the ridge during the night. But the mountain was more treacherous than we anticipated.”
In the middle of the night, wandering up the slope with no marked path, they lost track of where they were until the next morning. Initially disappointed that they wouldn’t make it to the lookout before the troops marched through the pass, they unexpectedly overheard people talking.
“My brother and I made it to the crest of a low-lying ledge. From below us came the sound of human voices and the footsteps of animals. Delighted that we had emerged from the forest at a spot where we could overlook the pass, we turned out attention to the voices. But when we peered down from the ledge, below us was only a narrow mountain trail. Navigating the trail was a platoon of mounted knights.”
The two of them were familiar with the trail. Heading from Rin’u to Tetsui, the highway to Hakurou skirted the foothills to the south. Heading north at the fork in the road, the route circled around to Tetsui, west of Kan’you Mountain. But there was also this narrow trail from Kakyou over the mountain to Tetsui.
“People like us from Tetsui took that route to Rin’u. You had to sleep under the stars along the way, but it cut the distance considerably. Using the main highway, it took seven days to Kakyou, and just three on the mountain trail. Granted, it was impassable during the winter and not wide enough to accommodate an army. That’s where they saw the soldiers on their kijuu.”
One of them appeared to be Gyousou himself.
“He was a good ways away, but based on the rumors spread by people who claimed to have seen him up close, I was pretty sure it was him. He was wearing black armor and riding a kijuu that resembled a white tiger. He didn’t have on a helmet and his hair was white.”
Risai nodded. “That does sound like him.” She said with poorly contained impatience, “And?”
The man weakly shook his head. “That’s all. As you’d expect, riding kijuu like that, they climbed the mountain trail at a brisk pace.”
“What of his condition? Did he appear to be in danger or under threat?”
“No,” the man answered. “There wasn’t anything in the air that suggested he was being menaced or intimidated or that he was coercing those around him, only that they were briskly moving forward in an entirely normal fashion. All of the soldiers around him wore resplendent red and black armor. While maintaining a comfortable distance, they surrounded him on all sides. I figured they were his bodyguards.”
“Did they look like they were in a hurry?”
“Yes. I think they were headed to Tetsui. That trail leads to Tetsui. If you aren’t going there, the only other destination is Kan’you Mountain.”
Risai found herself clenching her fists. Kan’you Mountain.
“My brother and I were pretty happy with the way things turned out. And very tired. We’d been wandering around the mountain all night, after all. Fortunately, we were just above the trail that led back to Kakyou. We’d wouldn’t have to run around in circles, only climb down from the ledge and follow the trail. Relieved at the way things had turned out, we decided to take a nap on the ledge. Except the sun was high in the sky and we were in high spirits so sleep was out of the question. We might as well head straight back to Kakyou. The problem was, we didn’t have anything to eat or drink and every bone in our bodies ached. We talked for a while until we nodded off. No sooner had we fallen asleep, it seemed, but a noise woke us up.”
As it turned out, they had napped a good part of the afternoon. The sun was low on the horizon. They couldn’t figure out at first what awoke them, but his brother had as well so they must have heard the same sound.
“Guess we fell asleep,” he said.
That’s when they caught the sound of footsteps coming from below the ledge. They peered over the edge. The platoon of mounted knights was coming down the trail. As best they could tell, these were the same soldiers who had climbed the trail that morning.
“Except His Highness was not among them.” Moreover, the platoon was at half its previous strength. “And some had suffered wounds. We thought maybe they’d been ambushed by one of the land gangs.”
The scene had an ominous feel about it. Where had the emperor disappeared to? They didn’t want imagine such an outcome, but they had to consider the possibility the battle with the land gangs had taken a bad turn.
“We wanted to run after them and ask what happened, but that wasn’t possible. Getting down from the ledge posed a big obstacle to start with, and there was the strange feeling we got about the whole thing.”
“The strange feeling?”
“Supposing that a battle had taken place, and something bad happened to His Highness, that platoon should have rushed back to the main force to report the situation. They’d deliver the news and call up reinforcements, right?”
“Stands to reason.”
“Except they didn’t appear to be in any kind of a hurry. Though they were riding kijuu and so were covering ground faster than solders could on foot, they weren’t moving nearly as fast as they could. Far from it, some of them looked like they’d been out for a jaunt, joking around with each other. Well, we weren’t close enough to make out their individual expressions, so we might have only imagined them laughing. The voices carried to our ears on the wind were unquestionably those of people in a giddy mood. And not the normal kind of casual happiness. Gallows humor.”
Their presence was cloaked in such grim shadows that he and his brother watched them ride off without calling out to them. After the sound of pounding hooves disappeared, they climbed down from the ledge and returned to Kakyou.
“We didn’t think any more about it until His Highness disappeared. When the word got out next day or the day after, in the uproar that followed, that was when my brother and I started putting the pieces together—” The man quieted his voice to a taut whisper. “Those soldiers probably did something to His Highness in the mountains. Traitors in the Imperial Army betrayed and assassinated him—”
He’d harbored these doubts all along and kept them to himself. At first, he couldn’t bring himself to admit the possibility. Then later, saying such things in public grew all too dangerous.
That platoon must have comprised the bodyguards Kouryou had spoken of, Asen’s personal retainers. They departed in the company of Gyousou and returned without him.
“Thank you. We’ve learned a lot from your account.”
The man nodded with brimming eyes. At length, he asked, “Would you perhaps be looking for His Highness?”
Risai only nodded in reply.
The man covered his eyes with his sleeve. “His Highness is no longer with us.”
Risai wanted to assure him otherwise, but felt it prudent not to do so. The less the people around them knew the better. The closer to the vest they kept this information the better, for all parties involved.
The man wept quietly for a moment, then bowed deeply and left.