8-3 Kyoshi, Risai, and Houto were bound with rope and taken to a compound near the front gate that also housed an inn. The inn must serve as their headquarters. Lamplight lit up the windows. Boisterous voices echoed from within. They were pushed into a shed off the entranceway to the compound.
“Well, then,” the big man said.
He pulled up an old chair, flipped it around, and sat down with his arms draped over the backrest. His henchmen deposited Kyoshi, Risai, and Houto on the dirt floor. He gave them an amused look.
“I’ll ask you again. Who are you and what are you doing here?”
Risai glared back at him. “We are hakushi on a pilgrimage to Kan’you Mountain.”
Kyuusan chuckled. “A pilgrimage? I know enough to know you aren’t interesting in visiting a bunch of shrines. It’s the mountain.”
Kyuusan waved his hand. Don’t bother playing dumb with me, the gesture meant. “You’ve been observed on several occasions prowling around the mountain well off the beaten track. You’re after the stones, aren’t you? The mines are all under our control, so you’re looking for abandoned pits to poach.”
Irritated by the scoffing tone of voice, Risai explained that the mother accompanying them was searching for a Taoist priest who’d become a mountain wizard. She believed that if they found the wizard, he would save them from their hard life. It sounded like a fairy tale, but to someone mired in poverty like herself, it was a ray of hope she could cling to. That’s why, given the season and knowing the dangers, she set off with her child in tow.
The land gangs created this state of privation. The gangs of Bun Province did Asen’s bidding and drove Gyousou from the throne. The hardships suffered by the people could also be laid at the feet of the land gangs. That they should suffer all the further at their hands and be left with nothing to cling to but a magical quest for a mountain wizard was an unforgiveable outrage.
“The goal of the hakushi is the pilgrimage. All we have to that end is our prayers, so we must make many sacrifices to do so.”
“I really doubt that.”
“Have you actually seen us picking up any of your precious stones?”
“No, but probably because you haven’t found a productive pit yet.” Kyuusan looked around the small space, a theatrically perplexed expression painted on his face. “At the end of the day, I’m a nice guy, you know? People traipse through here now and then assuming if they pick up a few stones we’ll just look the other way.”
The men around him reacted to this declaration in a variety of ways, some with laughter, others shaking their heads in surprise.
“But my gut tells me something else is going on here.” Kyuusan folded his arms on the top of the backrest and rested his chin on his arms. “Hakushi are an organized bunch, right? Though a few venture into the mountains on their own, the fact is, they usually troop off together with one objective in mind.”
“What are you getting at?”
“At first, I thought you were looking for abandoned mines, digging through old prospecting pits you could raid for a few precious stones. But now I got the feeling that’s not the case.” A menacing glint glowed in his eyes. “In truth, aren’t you here to reconnoiter our movements and positions? Getting ready to launch an attack and plunder Kan’you Mountain.”
“This guy’s an idiot.”
“Am I? Admittedly, I was on the fence about that particular conclusion. Except now I’ve got no doubts. Because you cannot possible be a bunch of devotees out to see the shrines. Not the way you fight. In particular—” He pointed straight at Risai. “You. You’re ex-military, aren’t you?”
“Risai-sama—” Kyoshi cautioned under his breath.
Risai looked at him and nodded. She said, “No need to lie about something like that. I am ex-military. As you can see, I lost an arm and had to take an early retirement. What’s so strange about someone like me finding a reason to live in religion?”
“Huh. So they’re like your subordinates?”
“Fellow followers. When I said I wanted to go on the pilgrimage, they offered to accompany me.”
“And you expect me to buy that explanation?”
“I heard that hakushi on Kan’you Mountain get a pass. That’s why I’m not carrying a sword. We only came here to pay our devotions. But those men picked a fight right in front of the shrine. They grabbed the woman with us and tried to shake her down for drinking money. We only wanted to help her get away. She’s traveling with a child, you see.”
“They’re spouting crap!” a man shouted, looking daggers at them. “They’re the ones who came at us.”
Risai started to respond. Kyuusan beat her to the punch. “Just shut up already.”
“You guys have been stinking of alcohol this whole time. And we all know that when you get drunk, you get stupid too.”
Stung by the verbal slap, the man sank into silence. Kyuusan’s behavior now had Risai wondering if she should reevaluate her opinion of him.
“Whatever you came here for, I’m sure it wasn’t to get into a brawl with my men in broad daylight. That’s why I’m willing to believe you didn’t start the fight.”
“But I don’t buy for a second that you are hakushi. You said you came here to pay your devotions. Was that to seek the divine protection of the mountain wizard? Or perhaps you were hoping to cast a curse on the rogue who took your arm?”
Kyuusan posed the questions in an excessively dramatic manner and grinned. “Hakushi don’t set off with prosaic purposes in mind, now, do they?”
Uncertain of where he was going with this line of questioning, Risai didn’t answer
“They go on the pilgrimage in fulfillment of their vows. The pilgrimage itself is the answer to their prayers. They’d tell you they’re following in the footsteps of a mountain wizard who was reborn on Kan’you Mountain.”
If you meet the great Taoist who lives on the mountain—
So that was what the woman was going on about.
“How is that you hakushi don’t know what you’re doing here?”
Asked point blank, Risai could only avert her gaze.
“You said that you were wandering around the mountain to confirm that some mountain wizard had been reborn there. Of course, I don’t believe such silly tales either. But those silly tales are exactly what hakushi believe. Do you think they come all the way here to make a few wishes and pay some mindless devotions?”
Which is why the Tensan School is known as a sect apart.
Risai groaned to herself. If its adherents did little more than visit the shrines and monuments of Sekirin Temple, that wouldn’t have earned it such a distinction. It differentiated itself with a unique theology and set of beliefs.
A little due diligence in that regard would have gone a long way.
The mention of a pilgrimage simply brought to mind a circuit tied together by a defined number of locations, trodden by pilgrims in search of spiritual uplift. But excuses and rationalizations would avail them nothing at this point, so Risai and Kyoshi said nothing.
A muffled voice echoed from the other side of the door. One of the men looking on went to answer the inquiry. After exchanging words at the door, he called out to Kyuusan, “Hey, Boss.”
He crossed the room from the door and whispered to Kyuusan.
“You’re sure about this?” Kyuusan said.
“Yep,” the messenger answered.
Kyuusan gave the matter a moment of thought and indicated agreement. The messenger went back to the door and returned in the company of another man.
“Kenchuu!” Houto exclaimed.
Kenchuu glanced at Risai and Kyoshi and Houto and nodded. Kyuusan looked Kenchuu over and said, “So you’re the Kenchuu, eh?”
Kenchuu ignored the inquiry as if the words hadn’t reached his ears. “I’ll take them with me.”
That prompted a wry chuckled from Kyuusan. “What, none of the usual pleasantries? Not even a thank you for looking after your friends? How sorry you are for the imposition? You sure don’t beat about the bush.”
Kenchuu didn’t respond, only met Kyuusan’s gaze head-on. Kyuusan shook his head. “Guess not. The famous agent from Rin’u. What brings a man like you to a place like this?”
“They needed a guide.”
“Never heard of any hakushi needing a guide.”
“They’re not hakushi.”
Kyoshi started in surprise. A flustered Houto raised his voice again. Kenchuu shot them a look. “No sense trying to fool anybody here. Sticking to that story’s not gonna make it any more convincing. These guys are not so easily fooled.”
“Nice to hear you say that nobody here was dumb enough to get fooled in the first place. But if they’re not hakushi, then what did they come here for?”
“I heard they were searching for somebody and there might be clues on Kan’you Mountain. That’s where they wanted to go. This neighborhood isn’t exactly friendly to sightseers. They thought they might not stand out so much dressed up as hakushi.”
“I can’t be the only one who thought them insisting they’re hakushi sounded all the more suspicious.”
“Well, it’s the truth. Fact is, when it comes to getting into these parts, doing it as hakushi is the only good option. Seeing the woman hakushi—she’s the real thing—getting accosted by those drunks, they stepped in to help out. Here’s the result.”
“Passing themselves off as hakushi. Huh.”
“She had a kid with her. Another reason for concern. We heard that the land gangs on Kan’you Mountain were a rough sort.”
Kyuusan let out a long breath. “I’d like to say it isn’t so but I can’t deny it either. My apologies. Harvests have been poor these past few years, you see. Like anybody else, empty stomachs make for worse manners.”
“No need to go that far, I don’t think. After all, this is your mountain. These people bear you no ill will. I’d appreciate you letting them go so they could continue their search.”
Kyuusan folded his arms. “They said the woman was traveling with them. If you could bring her around, I’d like to hear her side of the story. We’ve gotten the feeling of late that these hakushi have a different set of objectives in mind. I have a few questions about her role in that fracas too. May have to press her a bit on that account.”
Kenchuu didn’t answer.
“Bring her over here. Plus the kid who was with her. I’m sure the discussion will move right along with the kid present.”
“Threatening to use the child as a hostage?” Risai faced Kyuusan with fierce eyes.
“Simply the fastest way to get the truth out of her. Best way to save everybody a whole lot of time and effort, and make things easier on her. I know full well that’s not playing fair. Here’s the deal—the woman and the child in exchange for you three here. And everybody goes free.”
In short, Kyuusan was demanding a ransom.
“That’s low,” Risai spit out.
Kyuusan laughed. “So it is. Being labeled a member of the land gangs was once taken as an insult too.”
“Because you’re supposed to take those insults to heart and live a better life.”
“Oh?” Kyuusan grinned, as did the men around him. “How high-minded of you. The way you carry yourself, I’m guessing you’re one of those cast-offs from the Imperial Army or Provincial Guard.”
The messenger who’d whispered in his ear earlier interrupted at that point. “They called her Risai-sama earlier. That happens to be the name of a certain general with a price on her head.”
Risai caught her breath and felt a cold chill down her back.
“Hoh, that got her attention.” Kyuusan laughed. “You know, we’ve gone through a lot to survive as long as we have. You’ll live a short life around here if you don’t keep your ear close to the ground.”
“Hardly,” Risai shot back. “Why not give the credit where it rightly belongs? The real reason you’ve got Kan’you Mountain under your thumb. Who’s supporting you? Who do you have watching your backs?”
Kyuusan widened his eyes, feigning surprise. “You think we’ve got a benefactor behind the scenes looking out for us?”
“Asen, isn’t it?”
Risai was convinced this was the case. The only way a motley bunch like the land gangs could seize control of Kan’you Mountain was with the backing and support of a powerful patron. A powerful patron like Asen. He organized the chaos sown by the land gangs. They worked on his behalf. Their reward was Kan’you Mountain. It made sense, then, that the province would turn a blind eye to their activities, just as it would explain their suspicious behavior.
“The traitor who stole the throne from the emperor.”
Kyuusan gaped at her, then threw his head back and roared with laughter. “Now I get it. You think Asen handed us control of Kan’you Mountain. And General Risai came here to confirm that for herself?”
Risai didn’t answer.
“That makes you, what, one of the emperor’s retainers? You’re looking for somebody, didn’t you say? The leftover bits and pieces of the Imperial Army?”
With a wave of his hand, Kyuusan stood, turned the chair around, and sat back down again. Taking the gesture as a signal of some sort, half of the men there left the shed.
“Let’s say you find them. Then what? You’re going to gather together a fighting force and depose this Asen and whoever? Now you’re the one dreaming the dreams of an idiot.”
“An idiot, you say.”
“A raving idiot,” Kyuusan added with a smile. “Asen would squash you like a bug before you collected anywhere near enough forces to take his head.”
It was the cold hard truth, but Risai still found it infuriating.
“To start with,” Kyuusan continued, “overthrowing Asen at this point would make this kingdom even worse off than it already is.”
“The likes of the land gangs wouldn’t understand.”
“The likes of the land gangs, eh?” Kyuusan said with a loud guffaw. “Well, you’re not wrong. That’s who we are. We got no clue about the feelings of the high and mighty who live above the clouds. At best, we’d say it’s a lot of whining and pining for your lost status. But I suppose that’s just the petty-minded suspicions and misunderstandings of lowlifes like us.”
“What I’d expect to hear from a lout.”
Kyuusan laughed through his nose. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees.
“It’s easy to throw around words like land gangs. This used to be our neighborhood too. We became bandits to put food on the table. Bad weather means bad harvests. Our last ray of hope was the mines. But then the bounties of the land got monopolized by the powers that be, who cared only about lining their own pockets. You put your life on the line working morning to night in the pitch-black mine shafts and end up with a few coppers to rub together. For the fathers, it goes without saying, but mothers and children venture into the mines to scrape out a meager living. If there’s an accident and one of them can’t work, the cupboards go bare pretty quick. It’d be one thing if you just died, but end up bedridden and somebody else has got to stay home to take care of you. Now you’re two workers down and the whole family starves. If breaking the law is the only way not to die, you break the law. Or what? Is our high and mighty general-sama telling us to starve to death rather than fall into a life of crime?”
Risai bit her lip. Without a doubt, the exploitations of Emperor Kyou lay at the root of much of this evil.
“The rika is already bursting at the seams with villages who can’t feed themselves. Ask for a little help and they turn you away. My mother wrecked her knees in the mines. They said if she could still stand, she should do needlework instead.”
Kyuusan interrupted himself with a scornful chuckle. “You need eyesight to thread a needle. Working in those dark mines wrecked her eyes too. Well, they said, you got a mouth. Go beg on the street.”
Kyuusan laughed again.
“So that’s what we did. Never mind my mother. I had my health and two hard fists. So I beat a donation out of a couple of passers-by. That’s how I fed my family. You got a problem with that?”
Risai initially found herself at a loss for words. Finally she said, “The people you robbed had parents and siblings and children too.”
“I know. When it comes to causing other people grief, if it’s me and mine starving or them starving, I’m choosing them. If that’s not to your liking, then beat me up and take my money instead. Fair’s fair.”
Risai held her tongue. She didn’t know what to right then say to someone who knew he was doing was wrong and did it anyway. Winters were tough in Bun Province. Running short on supplies was a death sentence.
“What? Is the sermon over?”
Risai pressed her lips together. This man knew the difference between right and wrong. He knew he was on the wrong side of the law and yet chose to do keep doing wrong in order to survive. And yet Risai herself couldn’t say she wouldn’t do the same given the alternative of starving to death. Back when she was on the run from Asen, she also lied and deceived and had more than few run-ins with the law.
Risai said with a sigh, “In any situation where the only choice is between living and dying, the strong come out on top. You can call that a law of nature. The battlefield is such a place. Any sign of weakness and you’re dead. Except your strength is not without its limits. Someone stronger than you is bound to show up and swat you aside. Perhaps you can resign yourself to your own weakness, but what about the family that depends on your support?”
That prompted a quiet chuckle. “They’d have no choice but to resign themselves as well, if that’s what it came down to. We’d have no choice. I’ve lived this long relying on these fragile fists of mine. I fully accept that if they break, this livelihood of mine is over.”
Kyuusan sat back in the chair and crossed his legs. “This is probably beyond the imagination of our betters, but the world of the thieves is a world unto its own. We know we must all hang together or all hang separately. Rather, your world is the one that knows nothing about the camaraderie of the helping hand.”
“You do your duty,” Kyuusan explained, but that was hardly the same thing.
“If I died, my family might well starve. All the more likely they would not. A chivalrous soul would take it upon himself to look after them. If I had the resources to spare, I would do the same. Honorable individuals with such a sense of obligation do exist. Or at least I have to believe they do.”
“So there is honor amongst thieves.”
“Sounds absurd, but that’s what it is. The same way they know how to reach out to a mate who strayed from the proper path. The land gangs have their own ways and their own reasons. Their own sense of honor and their own relationships between high and low. As a case in point, there was this nearby town I attacked. I was told to do so by a man I owed a debt of honor to. I had no reason to refuse. Somebody was going to get a beating and I had no reason to believe this particular town was off limits.”
“And the people living there—” Risai started to say.
Kyuusan cut her off. “The same as the gang that hoists a traveler’s belongings on the highway. I don’t make any fine distinctions between them. There is one difference. I heard that attacking that town would rid the area of imperial rule. There was a new emperor on the throne and everybody was afraid the Imperial Army was out to make an example of us. Everything we’d been building would be swept away. In fact, province lords were getting replaced one after the other. We were in a hurry to make sure things didn’t end up like before.”
That’s why he went along with the plan, Kyuusan said. He looked down at his feet. “But nothing got better after that. The poverty in these parts is worse than under Emperor Kyou. No one in our little kingdom of the land gangs saw a turn for the better. Far from it. The guys conspiring with the higher-ups somewhere, that got us all riled up in the first place, they started disappearing one by one.”
“Like I said, idiots.”
Kyuusan said with a derisive smile, “So we were. Unschooled fools who could only think about what was right in front of our faces. You know, you ragtag remnants of the Imperial Army may be just what we need. Somebody to tell a bunch of dummies like us what in the world has been going on in Bun Province these past six years.”