8-2 Three days later, the four of them arrived at a mid-sized town, the final safe stop along the way. Heading further north, they’d be entering territory held by the land gangs and would be traveling at greater risk.
Early the next morning, they set off on a quiet road, Kenchuu in the lead. The vast majority of the villages and hamlets they passed showed no signs of life. They had been abandoned and left to the elements.
“At least the roofs and walls are intact,” Kyoshi said under his breath.
Were it not for the ongoing menace of the land gangs, here were buildings and land that could help many people rebuild their lives, starting with the refugees gathered at Fukyuu Temple. The thickets of thorn oak—the “Gift of Kouki”—that blanketed the outskirts of Rin’u were nowhere to be seen, proof that the area had been abandoned for some time.
By evening, Sokou came into view. They didn’t intend to stop there. The city had a ragged look about it. The glowing points of lamplight here and there offered evidence it was inhabited. The highway passed west of Sokou and continued to the north. Right before the town, another road turned east and climbed the mountains in the distance.
“Where does this one go?”
Houto explained, “This road heads east and passes between those two peaks before joining up with the Totei Highway east of Rin’u and entering Jou Province.”
Kenchuu nodded. He was a stout and stalwart man of few words. He would answer a question posed directly to him, but never said anything more than necessary. Though he was not an easy person to engage with, he had the trust of the refugees and was well known among them.
In which case, things may have turned out differently, Risai thought with a small smile.
“What?” Houto queried, noticing her expression.
“Oh, nothing. Just thinking about His Highness. He liked to say how he was not a popular man.”
“Eh?” Houto responded with evident surprise. “He wasn’t popular?”
Risai laughed. At the time, she reacted no differently to such an unlikely statement.
Surely you jest.
She wasn’t entirely sure how to explain herself. When it came to popularity, it was hard to imagine a person in Gyousou’s position being any less well known. It was part and parcel of the throne itself.
“I’m not an interesting man,” Gyousou liked to say. “There is certainly nothing endearing about me.”
By the winter after he ascended the throne, he had already earned the moniker of the impatient ruler. Risai asked him if it was really necessary to advance his agenda as such a rapid pace.
“I am not a popular man,” was his answer. “If you’re asking why I don’t slow down, it’s because the needs of the people must be met. That’s what it comes down to. After being impoverished by the reckless abuses of Emperor Kyou, I must demonstrate sooner rather than later that their expectations will not be frustrated.”
“I think that would be obvious to everyone.”
But there were also those who did not adjust well to rapid change, who were frightened of change itself, who felt like they were being swept away by the surging currents. That fear of an uncertain future was an emotion Risai could empathize with.
“In fact, I get the feeling it is in my nature to do so. The only way I can settle down is to charge ahead at full speed. I can’t wait for public acclaim to catch up with me because it won’t.”
Risai reacted the same Houto had. “What do you mean by that?”
Gyousou chuckled. “It’s the truth. You know the popularity that Ganchou and Sougen and Gaishin and men like them enjoy. Ganchou is beloved for his broadmindedness, Sougen for his refined manners, Gashin for his big heart.
“Well, yes, I get that—”
“Eishou has his quirks, but—” Gyousou said with a wry grin, “Precisely because of those quirks, his getting alone with people has a charm all of its own. Like Seirai, he can criticize you while remaining the best of friends, one reason why so many are willing to place their trust in him.”
Risai agreed. They had their detractors but far more people loved them. They were especially adored by their retainers.
“That is exactly the kind of personality I do not have. I’d take it as a compliment to only be called strait-laced and stuffy. I am never going to be the lovable life of the party. In short, not a popular person.”
“That isn’t the only meaning of being popular.”
As if a personality that only engendered feelings of affection, loyalty, and trust should have nothing to do with being “popular.”
“Your Highness is respected and trusted by many. Ganchou and his peers speak of Gyousou-sama in the highest terms. Isn’t that also a kind of popularity?”
Gyousou smiled. “What they trust are the results I produce,” he said in a perfectly matter-of-fact manner. If I didn’t, no one would line up behind me.”
“You shouldn’t say such things.”
“I don’t mind admitting it. There are plenty of uninteresting people like me in the world. But if I keep producing the results people are looking for, I will attract a following. Whatever popularity I enjoy is a consequence of the results I create. That’s why I am always looking for a way to get those results as quickly as possible.”
“Ah,” Risai said with a nod. In that sense, Gyousou’s “popularity” did indeed arise out of his accomplishments.
“We will move forward with all due haste.” Gyousou cast his gaze across the Sea of Clouds.
“And the results you are looking for will bring your subjects peace of mind.”
“That’s right,” Gyousou said.
Risai recounted her conversation with Gyousou
“Hoh,” Houto said, raising both his voice and his eyebrows. “Is he really that uninteresting a person?”
“He is serious to a fault and still with plenty of rough edges. It never occurred to me to think of him as uninteresting or otherwise.”
“If it never occurred to you, then he probably is as you say.”
“I wonder—” Risai started to say when Kyoshi spoke up.
“If he is the kind of person you have described, then he must find his current state to be most trying.”
Kyoshi’s words struck Risai like a stab in the heart.
Gyousou was not dead. He was alive somewhere right now. Being incapable of doing anything for the people of Tai must weigh heavily on his soul. He surely understood how the chaotic state of Tai sprang from that powerlessness, just as Asen’s refusal to govern left the people destitute and impoverished. How that must exasperate and anger him.
Risai hadn’t before empathized so keenly with Gyousou’s state of mind and emotions. “Of course,” she said to herself.
She raised her eyes. Walking along on the road head of them was a woman and child. The woman looked around the age of thirty. Despite her gaunt appearance, she stood tall and strode forward at a brisk pace, hand in hand with the young girl. She had a white sash tied around her head.
“Really?” Risai said in a small voice. “They’re going on the pilgrimage too?”
Kyoshi followed her gaze, as did Houto, who stared in surprise before hurrying over to them. “Excuse me. This may seem a stupid question, but are you headed to Kan’you Mountain?”
Startled by the voice suddenly calling out to her, the woman glanced at Houto with suspicious eyes. But she took note of the Houto’s walking stick, also affixed with the white ribbon, and the expression on her face soften to one of relief.
“Yes, we are. Are you as well?”
Houto nodded. He looked down at the child, a girl of six or seven. Her otherwise adorable countenance was taut from the strain of the journey. She held tightly to her mother’s hand.
“Your daughter? Hi, there,” Houto said, but the girl cowered behind her mother’s back.
“I apologize. She is shy around strangers.”
“No, no, not at all. My fault for rushing up on you. Sorry about that.” Houto gave the girl a reassuring smile. “She’s going with you?”
“I know I’m sticking my nose in,” Houto said with evident concern, “but it’s a bit dangerous, don’t you think? We’ve heard that the land gangs around these parts have been growing restless of late.”
“I’ve heard such rumors as well. How true are they?”
“True enough, it seems. Moreover, winter will soon be upon us. Snow is already falling at the higher altitudes. Isn’t taking a child into the mountains, well, rash?”
For a moment, a guilty look flashed across her face. She averted her eyes. “But in the end, they are just rumors. Anyway, the white ribbon gets you pass. That’s always been the rule.” With that, she urged her daughter onward. “Let’s go. You all take care.”
She bade them goodbye in curt tones and set off again, until Risai stood in their way.
“Weren’t you listening? The road ahead is dangerous.”
“Those rumors are so much talk. We are taking all due care along the way.”
“But hasn’t it been a dangerous venture from the start? Even if they pay you no mind at first, we’re talking about the land gangs. Their moods are as fickle as the weather. If they have a change of heart, they’re not going to politely announce it ahead of time.”
“Sure,” the woman said, impatiently looking past Risai at the road ahead.
“There’s nothing wrong with rethinking a decision like this. You really ought to head back. At least until the weather improves.”
“You’re hakushi too. Why are you trying to stop us?” The woman glared at Risai. “We’ll be on our way. You have warned us plenty. Now let us be.”
“I know full well what dangers lie ahead.” Her voice rose. “My husband died not far from here.”
“That being the case—”
“He died before he could see the pilgrimage through to the end. That is why. I appreciate your concern. Now, if you don’t mind—” She bowed politely, though with a decidedly frosty air.
“You couldn’t leave the child somewhere for the time being?”
“And where would this somewhere be?” she said, her eyes cold as ice. “Who would take her in during times like these? If there was such a place I could trust, I wouldn’t have needed to bring her along in the first place.”
“Please leave us alone. We must be on our way.”
“Why must you?”
The woman answered Risai’s question with a piercing look. “Who are you people?”
Caught off guard, Risai stumbled for a reply.
“You’re not from around here, are you? Not even from Bun Province. You don’t have trouble making ends meet. Anybody can tell at a glance. You are strangers with means dressing down like us commoners and playing at going on the pilgrimage.”
“I live in Rin’u,” Risai said. “No, I wasn’t born in Bun Province. Your birthplace doesn’t have anything to do with your faith, now, does it?”
“I suppose,” the woman said coolly. She took her daughter by the hand. “A Taoist master lives on that mountain.” She turned her attention to the soaring mountain to the north. “Long ago, he ventured into the mountains and became an exalted wizard. If you meet him, he will save you from the cold and hunger. After this, my daughter will live with no fear of death.”
What nonsense, Risai thought. There was no such wizard handing out miracles like that. Who was spreading such rumors? Nothing but fairy tales.
Still— she thought again. Driven into one corner after the other, the people of Bun Province had only their dreams to cling to in the end.
“We have to go on, if only for her sake,” the woman said over her shoulder. Leading her daughter by the hand, they set off toward Sokou.
Watching the mother and child stride off, Risai said to Kyoshi, “Let’s follow them.”
“You think you can stop her?” Houto asked. “That’s one stubborn lady.”
“We just can’t leave them to their own devices. We can at least follow at a safe distance. If they get into trouble, we won’t be far off. It’d look like we’re going on the pilgrimage together. The assumption that we’re traveling companions may well help to keep any danger at bay.”
“Got it,” said Kyoshi. Risai and Houto and Kenchuu picked up the pace to keep up with him.
“Just how safe is Sokou?” Risai asked Kenchuu.
“The town is definitely under the control of the land gangs. A lot of outsiders congregate there too. Together with the gangs, there’s enough of a population to draw in merchants and traders. That means a healthy flow of goods and services. People coming and going. A fair number of miners work in the nearby mountains. So it’s just not the gangs. But who is and who isn’t is going to depend on how the lines are being drawn.”
Risai nodded. The mother cast a sharp glance back at them and hurried along all the faster. After a while, she must have realized that Risai and the others were doing nothing more than following behind them and resumed a more normal gait. As they neared the gates to Sokou, she slowed even more and allowed to catch up with her, having concluded that entering the city as a group was the safest course of action.
Inside the gates, she looked right and left. The town was painted with the dark hues of ongoing decay, any broken-down buildings abandoned and left to deteriorate. Only the remaining intact structures showed any signs of life, the flickering of lamplight in the windows. And yet a good half of the town appeared uninhabited.
A small flag fluttered next to the building on their right.
“The Sekirin Temple shrine must be in that direction.”
The white flags indeed showed the way to the shrine, Kenchuu explained. True to his word, the woman continued down that street. The thoroughfare was quiet. Though pedestrians came and went frequently enough to never leave the street deserted, only half of the buildings showed any light in the windows. A glance revealed that there were relatively few inhabitants here given the overall size of the town.
Once an important transportation hub, Sokou was at the crossroads of the highways linking Kan’you Mountain and Rin’u and the routes branching off to Jou Province. Given the many mines in the vicinity, miners had crowded the streets.
The mother and child strode determinedly down the gloomy streets, following the trail marked by the dusty and dirty white flags. They turned a corner and entered a side street. The woman confirmed with a glance that Risai and her companions were tagging along after them. Straight down the street, they could make out the gate and the roof of the shrine.
“Do you think any Taoists will be staffing the shrine?”
“Should be,” Kenchuu said in his matter-of-fact way.
Sekirin Temple devoted itself to ascetic practice and study. As a rule, the Tensan school kept the outside world at arm’s length. As a result, the land gangs generally respected an unstated nonaggression pact with them.
“You don’t say,” Risai muttered.
A shadow fell across the path ahead of them. Several men emerged from an alley that intersected with main thoroughfare. Clearly members of a land gang. They weren’t wearing armor and weren’t carrying weapons. But they carried about them the brutish air of thugs and brawlers They fanned out on the road, right in the path of the woman and child.
“What are you doing?” the woman asked in an anxious voice.
Risai quickened her pace to close the distance between them.
“Haven’t seen your face around here,” one of the men said. His slurred words suggested he’d had more than enough to drink already.
“We are hakushi. Pay us no mind.”
“This time of year, those mountain roads exact a heavy toll. No place for a child, I’d say.”
“Let us through, please.” She stepped forward.
So did the man, blocking their way. His mouth twisted into a cruel smile. “You’d better call it quits. For the kid’s sake.”
“Yeah, yeah,” his comrades chimed in.
“Journey’s over for you. Time to donate your traveling expenses to a better cause.”
They were a bunch of shake-down artists. Risai firmed up her grip on the staff. Kenchuu raised his voice first. “Hakushi get a pass. That’s the rule around here.”
The men turned their attention to Kenchuu and Risai. Then to Houto and Kyoshi.
“You’re calling it quits too. You won’t be needing those traveling expenses either.”
“If the journey’s over, there’s no hakushi to start with.”
“We’re not quitting,” the mother said, and tried to push her way through the throng of men.
One of them seized hold of her. “I said you are.”
“Use your head. Looks like it’s about to start snowing around here.”
“And since you’re giving it a rest, that money in your pocket is crying out to buy us a round.”
Kyoshi glanced at Risai. Risai answered with a nod. Kyoshi sprinted toward the mother, staff in hand. He gave the man holding her a sharp jab in the shoulder, pushed him away and struck at his hands.
“What are you doing?” the man exclaimed, reflexively letting go of her.
“Get them to the shrine,” Risai said to the Kenchuu, shoving back the men reaching for Kyoshi.
Kenchuu ducked down and wedged himself between the mother and man, threw a sharp elbow, and scooped up the child. The man lunged at Kenchuu. Kyoshi knocked his arms aside. Another hand reached in from the side and grabbed the end of the staff. Instead of getting into a tug-of-war, Kyoshi let himself get pulled in and drove his shoulder into the man’s chest, then swept the staff under his feet, flipping him over on his back.
A gap opened up. Kenchuu plunged through it with the mother in tow. He took off to the shrine. One of the men tried to follow. Houto rushed over and blocked his path. Kyoshi slashed at the man’s legs with his staff, toppling him like a tree, stomped on his knees, and planted the end of the staff into the solar plexus of the next man who came at him.
All right. Kyoshi nodded to himself. Thanks to Risai and Kouryou, his fighting skills had definitely improved since the first time they met.
“You’re getting good at this,” Risai said softly, a smile in her voice. At the same time, she lashed out, her arm and staff a blur, and another man sank to the ground.
That was when Kyoshi heard footsteps behind him. Whirling around, he spotted a bigger crowd of men turning the corner at a run.
“Let’s go,” Risai said, flicking her eyes at the shrine.
Kenchuu and the woman and her child disappeared inside the temple gates. The woman glanced over her shoulder. Her expression was impossible to make out at this distance.
Of the drunkards who’d picked the fight, two lay on the ground, having lost the will to fight. Unable to accept defeat, the remaining three flailed about in a futile effort to regain the offensive. Houto shoved one back to the ground. The second rushed Risai. She knocked him on his backside with her staff.
Slipping through the opening, they made a beeline for the shrine. But the new arrivals rushed in and formed a ragged line in front of them.
Enemies before and behind.
Kyoshi, Risai, and Houto banded together, back-to-back-to-back. As best they could make out, there were six in front, seven to the rear. And three more running down the street. The one saving grace was that most of them were unarmed.
“Let’s make a headlong charge,” Risai said under her breath.
Kyoshi and Houto nodded, and the bolted at the six in front. Kyoshi thrust his staff into the chest of the man directly in front of him. He tottered off balance. Before Kyoshi could deliver the finishing blow, another man appeared from the side, blocking his swing. He dodged the thrown fist, found his footing, and parried the next punch. His assailant faltered. Kyoshi stepped forward to take advantage. But now the first man he’d failed to dispatch came at him again.
It took all his effort to turn that attack aside. A brief pause followed. He caught the sound of footsteps approaching behind him. He twisted around and shook him off, jumped to the side and opened up space between them.
The man sprawled there on the ground grabbed his ankle. Kyoshi kicked back and retreated, taking the chance to check his grip and level the staff. But already ten more men had rushed
This is impossible.
A cold sweat ran down his back. This is what it was like to face off against overwhelming numerical odds. Kouryou’s words rose up vividly in his mind. Overwhelm your opponent with sheer quantity. The fundamental rule of any offensive strategy.
One against this many was asking a lot. Given Kyoshi’s abilities, well-nigh impossible. However headlong attacks might whittle down their numbers, he was constantly getting outflanked. He’d been lucky enough to get out of the way of their assaults so far. But any more of them and that luck would run out.
Though Kyoshi might be losing his nerve, Risai was dispatching the men in front her one after the other. He at least wanted to get himself into a position where he could back her up. But every time he tried to rush to her side, another opponent stood in his path and stopped him in his tracks.
Even for Risai, the human wall surrounding her was slowly beginning to contract. Past a certain point, her skills with a fighting staff wouldn’t make a difference.
Recklessly brandishing his staff, Kyoshi charged the wall around Risai. If he could intimidate his opponents, open up a hole, break through and bolt for the shrine—
A blow caught him in the side. For a long second, he couldn’t breathe. He turned toward the attack. A fist came flying at his face. He ducked just in time. Someone seized his arm. He resisted the force dragging him off his feet when another blow landed on the side of his head.
The world blacked out in front of his eyes, followed by an explosion of stars. His senses briefly went numb. A flood of pain rising from his side brought him back to his senses. When he came to, Kyoshi found himself on his knees. He tried to stand and got pushed back down. He wrenched himself free. Before he could escape, more hands held yanked him down to the ground.
It’s all about not letting the attack strike home. Kyoshi again heard Kouryou’s voice in his head. When it does, you lose.
“What about hakushi getting a pass don’t you understand!” Houto roared. Pinned to the ground like Kyoshi, he drew ragged breaths. “Have you all taken leave of your senses?”
“That’s what I’d like to know too.”
The strangely calm voice cut through the tumult. The crowd parted before the speaker, an impressively large and muscular man with an exasperated smile on his face. “Hakushi getting into a street fight—what in the world is going on?”
“Those men assaulted a woman!” Houto shouted
“A woman?” the man said with raised brows.
“She managed to escape to the shrine.”
Kyoshi glanced at the shrine. He saw no signs of life there, no evidence that the woman or Kenchuu were peering out at them from behind the walls. The street was crowded with men. Their numbers were only increasing. Risai alone was still standing. But she too was surrounded by a cordon of men. She stood there stock still, having realized that any further resistance was futile.
The big man looked at the shrine and shook his head. “Don’t see anybody there.”
“She had a child with her. They were trying to rob her.”
“Hmm.” The big man squatted down next to a man sprawled on the ground. “What happened?”
“They jumped us out of the blue and starting beating us.”
“Liar!” Houto bellowed.
The big man said with an unhappy wave of his hand, “Looks like we’ll have to listen to what you have to say for yourselves. Let’s go.”
Protests arose from the men around him. Some steamed with indignation while others looked on like they’d chanced across an entertaining street performance.
“These guys first,” someone else said, and was about to give Houto a jab when the big man stopped him.
“Like I said, everybody gets to share their side of the story.”
Kyoshi looked up at the big brazen man. Wasn’t Kyuusan the boss of the land gangs who’d taken up residence on Kan’you Mountain?
“So how about we sit down someplace and talk?” Kyuusan said with a sinister smile. “I really dislike crowded places like this.”