Hills of Silver Ruins

Chapter 6

In Bun Province, the joufuu began to blow.

From far out in the Kyokai, the prevailing winter winds swept across the northeast of Tai. After picking up moisture over the Sea of Nothingness, the freezing gales collided with the mountain ranges in the north of Tai and unleashed great quantities of snow. Crossing the soaring You Mountains north of Rin’u, the now arid air cooled further before gusting down the foothills.

In one quarter of Rin’u, Risai sat in the courtyard of the house and looked up at the sky. The mountains rose like a wall over the tiled roofs of the low-rise buildings. White covered the ridgelines. The higher elevations had already seen their first snow.

On a windless day like today, sunlight filling the courtyard, it was easy to spend a day outdoors. Though the sunlight was warm enough to feel comfortable, it wouldn’t be too long before the cold of winter would seep into her bones if she sat there for more than a minute or two.

With Ki’itsu lending a helping hand, she and Kyoshi and Houto had gathered as much information as they could about Kan’you Mountain and the territories occupied by the land gangs. And yet the details remained nebulous and inconclusive, much of it little more than gossip and rumors. Telling truth from fiction was an increasingly difficult task.

p. 61

“Clearly, we’re not going to make any more progress without reconnoitering the road ahead,” Risai said.

Kyoshi and Houto agreed.

The next day, they left Rin’u and took the highway north

Rin’u was situated to the south of the You Mountain Range. The highway followed a broad valley that extended through the foothills all the way to Kan’you Mountain. The villages and hamlets that had once been home for those who worked on the mountain dotted the highway. So many lives had been lost in the meantime that most were now abandoned. With nowhere left to live, the few survivors became refugees.

Following the road, they first arrived at the village of Shikyuu. From Rin’u, the distance could be covered on foot in an hour. A woman who once lived in Shikyuu had seen Gyousou and soldiers under the command of one of Asen’s lieutenants engaged in secret talks. The meeting took place at a shrine in a grove of trees not far from the village.

Except the shrine no longer existed, the hill of blackened stone stark evidence that it had been burned to the ground.

“What a pity,” Risai murmured, patting the scorched bark of a nearby evergreen.

The roots of the big pine burrowed into the rocky ground. Charred on one side and stripped of its leaves, healthy limbs still grew on the side opposite, though in a debilitated condition. All the more symbolic, Risai couldn’t help thinking.

Ki’itsu looked up at the ravaged tree, sorrow brimming in his eyes. “When Shikyuu came under attack, many of its residents sought refuge at this shrine. They were reduced to ashes together with the building.”

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“So that’s what happened.”

“And yet it lives,” Houto observed of the tree. “However brittle life may appear on the surface, it can prove quite resilient deeper within.”

We can only pray the same holds true for residents of this land as well, Kyoshi thought, pressing his hand against the trunk of the scraggy pine.

According to Ki’itsu, rumors had the road to Kan’you Mountain being closed. But past Shikyuu, the highway was not empty of people. Here and there along the wintry road, they encountered travelers headed toward Kan’you Mountain.

“Looks like the way is not impassable,” Kyoshi said.

“There’s a town called Sokou a four-day walk from here,” Ki’itsu explained. “The towns up to Sokou are generally accessible. North from Sokou is territory occupied by the land gangs. No stranger can set foot there without someone to vouch for them.”

Travelers once headed to Kan’you Mountain on the highway and from there could cross over the range to Tetsui. But now all such thoroughfares were impassable. As a result, pedestrian traffic had dropped to a fraction of what it had been before.

“Though there are roads east from Sokou, with the town encircled by the land gangs, they’re all unusable. That means if you don’t have business in one of the towns in-between, those roads won’t take you anywhere.”

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As Ki’itsu explained the situation, an older couple passed by on the road without stopping at Shikyuu. As if leaning against each other for support, they slowly trudged up the gentle slope.

“Headed back to their village, I imagine. It’s probably not so dangerous, but the living has got to be lonely that way.”

“As I expected, hardly anybody is left here anymore. Ah, aren’t they hakushi?”

“Hakushi?”

“Yes. The pilgrimage of the Tensan school based in Rin’u.”

The Tensan school was a Taoist sect that flourished in the northern part of Tai. Among the Taoists who belonged to it were those who went on pilgrimage as part of their training. The circuit included Taoist temples in the provinces of Zui, Ba and Bun, as well as Sekirin Temple.

“Originally, only monks entering the priesthood walked the circuit. More recently, lay followers have followed in their footsteps. You see the white ribbon tied to their walking staffs?”

The old couple climbing the hill both made use of walking staffs. A white ribbon was tied to both staffs.

“That is the badge of a pilgrim. Back when it started, adherents carried a certificate in the form of a flag bearing the calligraphy of Sekirin Temple. Anyone going on the pilgrimage had to petition Sekirin Temple for a permit. That way, they could count on a minimum guarantee of shelter from the shrines along the way, lodging and meals. The white flag signified that they had the endorsement of Sekirin Temple.”

p. 64

“Huh.”

“At some point, it became a popular activity among regular believers as well. Also followers of the Tensan school, but their faith can include a mingling of folk religions that results in beliefs that are less than doctrinaire. They are called hakushi to distinguish their activities from those going on the formal Tensan pilgrimage.”

In particular, the hakushi did not have to petition Sekirin Temple for a permit and did not carry the flag. They traveled with the white ribbon instead of the flag. Sekirin Temple recognized them as practicing members of the laity, and the shrines were said to offer shelter to those carrying the white ribbon.

“The official pilgrimage for the Tensan school begins at Sekirin Temple, crosses Zui and Ba, and circles through Bun Province before returning to Sekirin Temple. It is an enormously challenging undertaking. While visiting the shrines and monuments in each area, they make the rounds of each temple. Tying them all together are training courses that take them deep into the mountains, often to quite inaccessible places. As a result, completing the pilgrimage alone can propel a participant into the ranks of respected and esteemed Taoists.”

Future generations of devoted adherents wished to experience a similar pilgrimage, but doing so proved an insurmountable challenge for the ordinary believer who was not a disciplined disciple. The itinerary was harsh, and without the necessary training, the journey on foot itself was difficult. Nevertheless, those who pressed their case could win approval from Sekirin Temple. Rather than the austere training courses, they followed more navigable routes. The number of locations visited along the pilgrimage were reduced and the more dangerous locations avoided altogether.

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“So the whole thing was simplified,” Kyoshi said.

Ki’itsu nodded. “The pilgrimage still follows portions of the training courses taken by the priests and monks, so it couldn’t be called easy. Sekirin Temple does not hand out certificates on a whim, and limits the applicants to groups and those clearly fit for the task.”

Because the Tensan school placed an emphasis on its training regimens, its followers participated in such practices as well, though the granting of permission first depended on the accumulation of a certain degree of experience.

“However, the hakushi belong in a different category. Unlike the pilgrimage for monks, priests, and the more dedicated adherents, the hakushi follow a course pared down to the vicinity of Kan’you Mountain. After visiting Sekirin Temple, the pilgrims continued to a shrine in the eastern peaks. From there they make stops at the monuments along the way as they circle Kan’you Mountain. The whole pilgrimage takes about a month.”

Ki’itsu cast his gaze at the elderly couple now receding into the distance.

“I can say that the Tensan school pilgrimages for the monks and priests and for the adherents are rare, but the hakushi pilgrimage is quite popular. The number of participants has grown especially in recent times. As the land gangs have nothing to lose or gain from them, the hakushi alone have their tacit consent to travel through their territory. Granted, we are talking about the land gangs, so victims of their capriciousness do emerge on an unfortunately regular basis.”

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And yet they went, knowing the dangers. Even if the land gangs turned a blind eye along the way, the mountains were still bitter cold at this time of year. Even if the shrines along the way could be trusted to take them in, there was no denying that the journey itself was beset with risks.

Kyoshi was turning these thoughts over in his mind when Risai asked, “When did the pilgrimage start to get popular?”

“I recall that a pilgrimage for lay followers was already established when I was growing up.”

“I have to wonder what kind of experiences they might have along the way.”

“Ah,” said Ki’itsu. He lowered his head in thought. “The official pilgrimage is not so common these days. The more popular hakushi sprang to life in the wake of the chaos in Bun Province, after the eradication campaigns. But with the circuit limited to the vicinity of Kan’you Mountain, there is a chance they would see or hear something on the journey.”

Risai nodded and rushed off after the old couple. “Excuse me—” she called out.

The couple let out a small shriek and spun around. In the process, the old woman lost her balance and tumbled to the ground.

“I’m sorry. Are you all right?”

Crouching down to help his companion, the old man looked up at Risai, a look of fear on his face as well.

“Sorry for startling you,” said Ki’itsu. He ran up, knelt down, and reached out a hand. “Are you okay?”

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The couple answered Ki’itsu’s question with surprised expressions, then took in his monasterial robes and nodded in apparent relief.

“We thought you were with the gangs—”

“We apologize for the misunderstanding. We simply wished to ask you some questions.”

Ki’itsu helped them to their feet and brushed the dust off their clothing. He said, “You’re locals, right? Have you encountered the land gangs in these parts?”

Back on their feet again, the couple said, “We heard things were still calm in this area. But there are also stories going around about how they’ve gotten restless of late and are even showing up here in the south.”

“Knowing that you still set out on the pilgrimage?”

The couple responded to Risai’s question with a pair of puzzled looks.

“I mean,” Risai pressed, “it sounds dangerous for someone your age.”

When the two bowed their heads in an abashed manner, Ki’itsu said consolingly, “I am sure you gave the decision much thought and prayer. If you don’t mind, could you spare us a few minutes of your time?”

“Oh, of course.”

“May I assume are you at the beginning of your pilgrimage?”

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They both nodded. Looking on, Kyoshi sighed dejectedly to himself. In that case, it was unlikely they would have heard anything new about Gyousou’s whereabouts.

“We were wondering if you had chanced across anyone else going on the pilgrimage, someone who might have seen or heard stories about a senior military man in the area, perhaps badly wounded.”

“No,” they answered. The old man narrowed his eyes and gave Ki’itsu a scrutinizing look. “Who exactly are talking about here?”

“Oh, no one in particular. Well, an acquaintance of ours went missing around these parts a while back. Even if the stories are dated by now, anything noteworthy since the troubles with the land gangs.”

“We don’t know anything about that,” the old man said, in a tone of voice that shut the door on the subject.

“Well, then,” the old woman said. “Let’s get going.”

“Not even rumors?”

“Like I said, haven’t heard a thing. Now, if you don’t mind—”

The couple hurried off, but not before Ki’itsu called after them, “Snow will start falling before long. Are you sure you are going to be all right?”

“There are temples along the way.”

“I too have visited the holy temples on Kan’you Mountain. The road ahead is not an easy one. But I can tell this was not a decision you came to lightly, so we will not hold you back. Please take care and do not take any unnecessary risks.”

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Their perplexed looks and slight nods expressed thanks to Ki’itsu for his concern, but also made clear they did not wish to have anything more to do with him.

“You’re not going to stop them, Ki’itsu?” Risai asked, watching the two hurry off as if escaping their clutches.

“They have obviously set their hearts on this journey.”

“But it is dangerous.”

Perhaps her words reached them, for the old couple shot worried glances at her over their shoulders.

“Not only the land gangs. The weather and the road itself.”

“I am sure they are perfectly aware of the dangers,” he said with a wry smile. “Which speaks to the extent of their commitment. Such is the stuff that faith is made of.”

Risai closed her mouth, though she clearly didn’t agree. On the other hand, Kyoshi more or less understood where they were coming from. They wanted to go, the risks notwithstanding. Having committed themselves, they could nothing else. Watching the couple recede into the distance, Kyoshi thought how such a journey could only be explained by the earnestness of their entreaties. Something must have compelled them to set off on this journey for the first time, no matter how dangerous it might be.

“I do hope they return without incident,” Kyoshi murmured.

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Struck by a thought, Risai turned to face Ki’itsu. “Ki’itsu, do you think it possible to outfit us as hakushi?”

Ah, Kyoshi thought. They would have to leave the kijuu and horses behind. Armor and weapons as well. But with a white sash affixed to their persons—

Kyoshi nodded to himself. A dagger could be hidden beneath the clothing. A fighting staff could easily be passed off as a walking staff. Kouryou’s talents would prove useful in that respect. Come to think about it, what was he up to these days? But then he shook off the question. Such ruminations did them no good at this juncture.

“Let’s make the preparations with all due haste.”

The four of them rushed back to Rin’u. That night, having finished with the preparations, Ki’itsu said that he believed they could use another person in their party.

“A resident of Rin’u, someone I can trust without reservation. A courageous and capable man the people of Fukyuu Temple have turned to time and again. He knows the environs of Kan’you Mountain like the back of his hand. I think he would prove quite useful were he to accompany you.”

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Ki’itsu explained that he thought they would be better off if he bowed out. “One way or another, I’m afraid my presence would amount to so much extra baggage. Especially if you have any run-ins with the land gangs, I would end up one more thing for Risai-sama to worry about.”

They appreciated his honest assessment. At the minimum, an experienced traveler like Houto knew how to handle himself when push came to shove. Kyoshi as well could at least watch his own back. But that didn’t hold true for Ki’itsu. If something happened, reacting to the situation while protecting Ki’itsu would become an inevitable concern. The same thing had occurred to Risai, who gratefully accepted his proposal.

The next morning, they were waiting for Rin’u gates to open with Ki’itsu arrived with a familiar face in tow.

“Kenchuu?” Risai exclaimed.

Ki’itsu cast a startled look at the two of them. Kenchuu must have been taken aback as well, but only responded with a puzzled nod.

“So you already know each other.”

Houto grinned. “Kenchuu arranged for the house we’re staying in. Seems he’s on good terms with both the shin’nou and with Fukyuu Temple.”

“You don’t say,” Ki’itsu said with a smile of his own.

Or just call it karma, Kyoshi thought to himself.

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“Do your connections extend to Kan’you Mountain as well?”

“No,” was Kenchuu’s terse response.

Ki’itsu explained. “Kenchuu has long served as an agent for the miners and the local mining operations.”

“That’s what I heard from the shin’nou too.”

Ki’itsu nodded. “Those connections have provided him with a good working knowledge of the mines in the area, along with the region around Kan’you Mountain. That’s where the worker villages for the miners were located in the first place. Though Kenchuu doesn’t dispatch miners to the mountain, I don’t think.”

Kenchuu agreed. “It’s not a miner’s mountain.”

More than the mines, Kan’you Mountain was known for its gemstone fountains. A gemstone fountain was a spring that literally produced gemstones. The water bubbling to the surface on Kan’you Mountain naturally created precious stones within the earth. It was the job of the miners to extract those bounties. Except Kan’you Mountain was home to the oldest known gemstone fountains, and had been mined as far back as anybody knew. But having yielded a treasure trove of jewels, the fountains were now dry.

During the dynasty of Emperor Kyou, only a few active springs remained on the mountain. Prospectors staked claims in the creeks and quarries and cultured gemstones in the fountains. They obtained writs from the imperial and provincial governments that recognized their exclusive rights to farm the gems there. To keep their claims from being poached, they built multiple layers of barriers along the mining roads and kept the exact locations of the fountains secret, even going so far as to hire guards to man the barriers.

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The land gangs, of course, supplied the security.

“The prospectors didn’t need any miners to culture and farm the gemstones.”

They did turn to the miners to search for new fountains. But it’d long been common knowledge that there were no new fountains on Kan’you Mountain. The result was that Kenchuu didn’t dispatch miners to Kan’you Mountain.

But small gemstone fountains could be found around Kan’you Mountain, especially in the region south of Mount You. And not only Mount You. Many mines and mineral fountains in the vicinity of Rin’u produced gold and silver and other rare metals. Kenchuu did act as an agent for the miners who worked in those locations.

Risai asked, “When the violence broke out in Bun Province, how many working gemstone fountains could be found in an around Kan’you Mountain?”

Fewer than ten was Kenchuu’s estimation.

The gemstone fountains on Kan’you Mountain had already been headed that way for some time, but around the time that Emperor Kyou strayed from the Way, the nearby gemstone fountains and the mineral fountains in the vicinity of Rin’u began to dry up. New ore beds and fountains were sought out and more productive mountains put into development. Many more never panned out. The miners suffered chronic unemployment.

However, precious stones could be sifted from the strata of sand and gravel in the old fountains and the channels the water from the fountains flowed through. Though they didn’t sell well as jewels, there was a reasonable demand for the polished stones. Some miners worked those gravel beds, at least until the land gangs moved in and took over.

“In any case, Bun Province took a hands-off approach to the land gangs. The province lord showed little interesting in actually governing.”

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Ki’itsu explained all this in a dejected tone of voice. The Imperial Army had temporarily vanquished the land gangs. With the rise of Asen and the breakup of the Imperial Army, the land gangs regrouped. Preying on the impoverished inhabitants of the area, they regained the power and influence they’d enjoyed before. And Bun Province let them be. The government didn’t lift a finger to expel the land gangs or save the people.

“A gang lord by the name of Kyuusan controls Kan’you Mountain. The Imperial Army smashed the biggest and most powerful of the land gangs, which had the effect of breathing new life into the bit players and also-rans. Kyuusan was one of those who rose up to fill the gaps.”

Though reorganized along the same lines as before, the gangs were shadows of their previous selves, little more than roving bands of rough and violent men with no strong leader to tie them together and give them a common cause.

Ki’itsu concluded, “Not as dangerous as their predecessors but still reason enough to stay on your toes.”

The next day, Risai, Houto, Kyoshi, and Kenchuu left as soon as the gates opened and once again headed north. Figuring that openly carrying weapons would give the land gangs an excuse to pick a fight with them, they were armed only with fighting staffs disguised as walking staffs, to which they affixed white ribbons. An hour later, they had left Shikyuu behind as well.

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