6-6 A platoon of soldiers ascended the mountain with Gyousou and came back down without him.
The heavy meaning in that simple recounting left Kyoshi harboring dark thoughts.
He asked, “Risai-sama, is this what you meant when you said the best evidence would be found on Kan’you Mountain? That His Highness was attacked there? Given the pace of such kijuu, they definitely could make the trip to Kan’you Mountain and back in a day.”
Risai nodded. “Gyousou’s sash was discovered in a shipment from Kan’you Mountain, stained with blood and severed in a way that suggests he was attacked from behind and slashed with a single stroke. It likely fell where the attack took place.”
“So that’s what happened,” Ki’itsu muttered, closing his eyes as if deep in thought.
Houto said, “Considering the descriptions of that platoon, I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt that Gyousou-sama left the column of his own accord. Though the testimony of Asen’s own troops is not to be trusted in this regard.”
“So it seems.” Risai said, a puzzled expression on her face. “Why would Gyousou-sama separate from his own column?”
Under normal circumstances, she went on to say, answering her own question, it should never happen.
Houto agreed. “But then there’s the account of Gyousou-sama at the shrine outside Shikyuu, carrying on a conversation with a military commander wearing red and black armor and several seemingly ordinary men.”
“That red and black armor was worn by his bodyguards. Kouryou did say a platoon went missing at the same time. This platoon was suited up as his security detail. The soldiers in Shikyuu accompanied him there ostensibly to protect him. The problem that leaves us with are these civilians.”
“Would an ordinary civilian be able to wrangle a meeting with His Highness?”
“Normally it’d be out of the question, unless a longstanding friendship or other circumstances were involved. And unlikely even then. In any case, even Sougen and Eishou don’t appear to have been familiar with them. One possibility is that someone in Asen’s army made the introductions and arranged the meeting. We’re not talking about any common foot soldier. Perhaps General Hinken. He had command of Asen’s troops at the time.”
“What kind of man is this Hinken?”
Risai tilted her head to the side. “I don’t really know. We don’t share any common acquaintances that I know of. He is a regimental commander in Asen’s army. I haven’t heard anything that suggests his skills are in any way exceptional. I don’t even think he was one of Asen’s subordinates originally. During the dynasty of Emperor Kyou, he might have served in a different chain of command.”
The command structure of an army was rarely made up solely of the general’s personal retainers. That was true of the army Risai led as well. Her five regimental commanders had risen up the ranks with her. But at the battalion level and below, more than a few of the soldiers and officers were assigned there by the Ministry of Summer, including some with decidedly less than stellar reputations.
“I never heard of any problems that set him apart from the rest, but he didn’t exactly make his presence known, if you know what I mean.”
“That being the case, it’s hard to imagine a regimental commander like Hinken setting up a meeting with Gyousou-sama.”
“Not necessarily. To be sure, Hinken might not have been a stand-out as a military leader. But however imperfect, he was the face of Asen’s army and in charge of its officers and soldiers. Though Gyousou-sama was formally in command as the acting general, the army was basically on loan to him. It wouldn’t be good form to not take Hinken seriously. If Hinken insisted on a specific course of action, it’d be difficult to refuse.”
“So Hinken made the arrangements?”
“I think it highly likely. In which case, these arrangements in Shikyuu ended with Gyousou-sama leaving the column. Having kept any knowledge of the meeting from Sougen and Eishou in the first place, they were equally in the dark when he set off on his own.”
“In other words, you’re saying he was lured out?” Ki’itsu was clearly doubtful. “That would be careless of him in the extreme.”
“Based on how things turned out, so it would seem.” Risai was no less taken aback. “But Gyousou-sama also must have sensed something strange going on. That’s why he borrowed additional soldiers from Sougen the night before.”
“Ah, I see,” Houto said with a soft clap of his hands. “Hinken offered to arrange a meeting with some third party. The circumstances being what they were, Gyousou-sama couldn’t reject it out of hand. This third party had the ulterior motive of separating him from the main column. Gyousou-sama agreed, but thinking things suspicious, took extra troops along with him and had them standing guard.”
“That seems the rational conclusion to come to. However, those guards never returned. I think we can conclude that when things took a turn for the worse and they came running, they got attacked along with Gyousou-sama.”
“And the stage for these events was Kan’you Mountain.”
Risai agreed. But Ki’itsu responded with a questioning look. “I don’t think these events can be confined to Kan’you Mountain. That shortcut certainly exists. Except starting out west of Kankyou and climbing north brings you to Ryuukei. Without a doubt, heading west from Ryuukei takes you to Tetsui. Heading east takes you to Kan’you Mountain. But there are a number of towns on the road between Kan’you Mountain and Tetsui.”
“Any attack would have been planned to take place out of public view,” Houto observed.
“Even so, would they deliberately go all the way to Kan’you Mountain? Kan’you Mountain is hardly unpopulated. On the other hand, that mountain path is perfect for an ambush, mostly deserted and no homesteads in sight. I think it more likely His Highness was attacked somewhere along that route.”
“You have a good point,” Houto agreed.
“In that case,” Risai objected, “why was Gyousou-sama’s sash found in a shipment from Kan’you Mountain? What was the state of operations on the mountain at the time?”
Ki’itsu cast his thoughts back and nodded. “Now that you mention it, Kan’you Mountain might have been shut down around then. Not just the mountain. The whole area was infested with the land gangs. I recall the local residents relocating in great numbers.”
“Asen was pulling the strings of the land gangs. If he designed the ambush to take place somewhere in Kan’you Mountain, he could have deployed the land gangs to clear out any people in the vicinity.”
“But if you’re going to go to the trouble of clearing out of an area like that, it wouldn’t have to be Kan’you Mountain.”
“There is a degree to which, if you’re not in an area that’s been cordoned off and you miss your mark, that makes escape all the easier. Choosing Kan’you Mountain makes more sense in that light. And Kan’you Mountain is where the sash—”
Ki’itsu broke to say, “Don’t you find that strange? Asen attacked His Highness—or to be precise, the soldiers he dispatched as his security detail bungled the job. At that point, Asen having shown his hand, his subordinates would do whatever it took to keep any knowledge of the attack from getting out. They’d scrub the area clean of evidence that might lead back to them. They wouldn’t leave a scrap of clothing just sitting there like that.”
Risai furrowed her brows. “True enough.”
“Moreover, having gone to all the trouble of luring him out, I find it hard to believe his security detail would carry out the attack alone. If it were me, I would have allies lying in wait at the designated spot, hiding out of view in a place nobody else was likely to chance upon. Carry out the attack and then dispose of the incriminating evidence, including the body of His Highness. And the disposal site was Kan’you Mountain.”
What with all the mine ventilation shafts, fissures in the earth left behind by cave-ins, and test digs by prospectors, Ki’itsu explained, there were no end of deep holes where the true could be buried for good.
“Hold on, there,” Houto said, raising his voice. “If they really did go to such lengths, Gyousou-sama could not have possibly survived. And yet he is very much alive.”
“I have voiced these doubts before,” Ki’itsu said. “But can we say for certain that is the case?” Ki’itsu cast his eyes down at the ground. “I don’t want to believe that His Highness is dead, but—”
“He lives,” Risai declared. “Beyond the shadow of a doubt, he lives.”
“Then why haven’t we heard a word from him in these past six years?”
“That is—” Risai started to say and couldn’t find the words to complete the thought.
“Is he not aware of the current state that Tai is in? Knowing how things are, how can he remain silent? Why won’t he step forward to save Tai?”
“Perhaps because no matter how much he wants to raise his voice, he cannot,” Kyoshi interjected. “As Kouryou said, Tai is caught between a between a rock and a hard place.”
“A rock and a hard place,” Ki’itsu echoed, a puzzled look on his face.
“Saving Tai means striking Asen down. Doing that requires military force. If His Highness stood forth and denounced Asen, his retainers now in hiding would rally behind him and those military forces would gather to the cause. However, as soon as they came out in the open, Asen would certainly attack before those military forces could assemble in a meaningful way.”
“Ah, yes. That makes sense.”
“We can’t strike back at Asen without showing our hand. But showing our hand invites immediate reprisals. Moreover, innocent civilians would inevitably get caught up in the ensuing chaos. With such concerns in mind, His Highness’s retainers are keeping so out of sight that their activities are not even fodder for gossip. The same would hold no less true for His Highness.”
“Exactly,” Risai said with renewed conviction. “I believe His Highness is alive and somewhere in hiding. He is surely distressed by the present state of Tai, but his hands are tied.”
“That makes sense to me. But then where?” Ki’itsu asked.
“Hence the importance of this search. Our only clue is that sash. Regardless of how it came to be cast aside, the fact remains that it is somehow connected to Kan’you Mountain. There is no way to tell what the connection is without going to Kan’you Mountain and seeing for ourselves.”
“And yet with conditions on Kan’you Mountain being what they are—”
“Meaning that one way or another, we will have to find a way,” Kyoshi said.
Risai and Houto nodded with great resolve.