Hills of Silver Ruins

Chapter 9

8-4 Kyuusan was born in a small town in the south of Bun Province, in a desolate mountain valley mostly cut off from the rest of the world. It produced nothing of note. Impoverished by the dry and cold winters, isolated by the snow and ice, the townspeople exhausted the meager supply of foodstuffs they put in storage every year. The heavy taxes levied to support the profligate lifestyle of Emperor Kyou only added to the burden.

When Kyuusan was thirteen, his father struck their names from the koseki, the local census records, and fled the town, meaning that Kyuusan had been a rootless drifter since the age of thirteen.

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At the time, the family had already relinquished the allotment and house they’d received from the kingdom. His mother and youngest sister had weakened constitutions that often left them ill. They sold everything they could sell to buy medicine. Their father parted with their land for less than it was worth, and then worked as a tenant farmer for the man who bought it, a lifestyle he was soon could no longer abide.

After leaving town, the family headed for the mines east of Rin’u, where his parents dug for silver. Kyuusan become a miner as well. Even with the three of them at work, making ends meet remained an uphill climb. So meager were their wages that if their mother fell ill, their remaining income couldn’t put food on the table.

Kyuusan’s younger sisters were too small to work in the mines, and the older of the two had her hands full tending to the youngest, and their mother too, when she was laid up. This child of ten valiantly watched over them until she came down with a fever and quickly passed.

Not long after that, their grief-stricken father was killed in a cave-in. Her eyes failing and knees ruined, their mother could no longer work. Kyuusan’s earning alone were not enough to feed them. With nowhere else to turn, their mother returned to the village where she grew up and sought shelter in the rika. The rika coldly refused to take them in.

Now with a sister and invalid mother to support, Kyuusan went back to the mines and joined the local land gang. The gang leader who recruited him promised to make him one of their own and look after his sister and mother to boot.

Though only sixteen at the time, Kyuusan was already a head taller than most adults. Able to eat his fill, his once thin frame filled out. He learned to fight with his fists and mastered the use of weapons. He soon stood out among the rest. The boss took a liking to him. By his mid-twenties, with the boss’s own strength failing him, Kyuusan took over the gang in his stead.

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To be sure, the definition of a “land gang” varied as much as the land itself. In basic terms, a land gang had the run of a mountain. From a broader perspective, the territories were divvied up among them. The gang lord of the mountain where Kyuusan operated was a man by the name of Rensoku. Rensoku had three main gang factions under him that managed the territory on a day-to-day basis.

In organization terms, Kyuusan’s faction was positioned under them.

Though the boss of his faction had retired and left Kyuusan in charge, the scope of his activities on the mountain was checked to a considerably extent. His primary duties involved mediating disputes among the miners and maintaining order. His areas of responsibility were defined as “above ground,” but did not include dealing with merchants and traders, who fell under the auspices of a more powerful faction.

Always with an eye out for disgruntled rivals with chips on their shoulders, Rensoku parceled out the jobs with the most potential for profit to the most powerful gangs.

Kyuusan, on the other hand, had the disagreeable job of playing peacemaker, pulling brawlers apart when fights broke out, breaking up rowdy parties, and calming everybody down when things got out of hand. Though when an actual criminal dared to break their laws, he wasn’t above dispensing a bit of justice with his fists.

These were the kind of responsibilities that put him in danger on a regular basis, and that could easily earn him the enmity of the miners.

But the boss who recruited Kyuusan focused on the upsides the job presented. He reminded Kyuusan over and again: Use your brain, use your brawn, and make an honest effort. If he resorted to cheap shots and easy solutions when breaking up a fight, both sides would end up hating him. Instead, he should find ways to earn the thanks of both parties. The trust and good opinion of the miners would prove a far more valuable commodity down the road

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Kyuusan took those lessons to heart. The assets he garnered along the way later bought him his independence. Though its fortunes had long been in decline, its mines mostly worthless, he now ran Kan’you Mountain. No one’s underling, Kyuusan could fairly call the mountain his own. By rights, the land gangs had dibs on all the work contracted on the mountain, which put Kyuusan in a privileged position.

Kyuusan became a free agent when the chaos erupted in Bun Province. Three years after that, he gained a controlling interest in Kantaku, a small gemstone fountain not far from Koumon, the mountain where the troubles first started. Like Koumon, Kantaku was on a mountain that had played out in recent years, leaving behind little in the way of precious gems worth mining for.

It was blessed only by the fountains that bubbled up here and there in the mine shafts.

Since the waning days of the Kyou Dynasty, the mines in Bun Province had run dry at an alarming rate. Even Kan’you Mountain seemed to shut down across the board. A sharp increase in prospecting naturally followed, with new ventures launched on many mountains. But the returns everywhere were disappointingly small.

Even so, whatever happened on the mountains, the jurisdiction of the land gangs had come to be seen as necessary, meaning that a small gang like Kyuusan’s could easily strike out on its own. Kyuusan himself exemplified the sudden rise of new land gangs that accompanied recent developments in the region.

The inhabitants of Koumon received a license from the province giving them private ownership of the mountain. Kantaku, on the other hand, fell under direct ownership of the shire castle town of Kohaku. The shire administrator was a young and avaricious apparatchik, but the mountain had an excellent track record.

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As the gemstone fountains were a key feature of the mountain itself, it largely escaped the mayhem. When it came to managing the small but high-quality mining claims, what Kyuusan brought to the table were the personal relationships he’d forged along the way. Rensoku, the gang lord he’d once reported to, had also taken note of the thriving human resources Kyuusan had put together.

Thanks to Rensoku’s negotiations and the recommendations of miners on the mountain, administration of Kantaku was handed over to Kyuusan.

Since taking charge in Kantaku, prospecting for new ore beds and fountains and developing the finds proceeded apace. As the scale of the operations expanded, albeit in small and incremental steps, Kyuusan’s power and influence grew at an equally measured rate. Kantaku’s reputation spread as a good mountain to work on. Even without experiencing Kyuusan’s management skills first hand, word of mouth attracted skilled miners to the mountain.

The first clouds began to gather six years later.

Kyuusan became independent. Having laid the foundation of his own organization, he had nothing like a boss directly above him. The only person who could be called senior to him was that avaricious shire administrator and the bureaucracy he controlled. Generally speaking, though, they didn’t have the kind of relationship that resulted in anybody ordering Kyuusan around.

The one exception was Rensoku, whose smooth tongue and wily ways had given Kyuusan such a big leg up. If Rensoku owed Kyuusan for his years of service, Kyuusan owed Rensoku for handing him the reins to Kantaku. So far Rensoku had yet to call in those markers, but when and if he did, there was no way that Kyuusan could refuse.

Six years before, Rensoku directly appealed to Kyuusan to lend Kyuujo a hand. In the end, Rensoku handed over management of the mountain to Kyuusan and two others. Also one of Rensoku’s subordinates, Kyuujo had the same rank as them. In terms of their duties, they occupied the second organizational tier below Rensoku. Kyuusan was the most junior of this group. The pecking order on the mountain made Kyuujo his aniki, his “big brother,” and also made it difficult for Kyuusan to say no to him.

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And if Rensoku put in a word on Kyuujo’s behalf, it’d become well-nigh impossible.

The first job Kyuujo passed along to Kyuusan involved the security in and around Kan’you Mountain. “We’re catching wind of big brawls in the offing,” he explained. “We need to make sure that people who don’t need to be here aren’t muscling their way into the territory.”

According to the code of the land gangs, that meant they were going on the warpath and needed his support. If the military mobilized, the land gangs involved needed backup. In fact, not long after that, the gang in Koumon staged an uprising. After clashing with local government forces, they occupied Kohaku.

And then to everyone’s surprise, Imperial Army waded into the fray, a truly disastrous development.

A new emperor had been enthroned in Tai. Immediately following the coronation, corrupt province lords, long the subject of sinister rumors, were shuffled out of their positions. Their replacements were blank slates, just as the true character and disposition of the emperor remained a mystery. The only thing without a doubt was that this emperor was no friend of the land gangs.

Anyone born in Bun Province well understood the facts on the ground in Tetsui. The new emperor had a major hand in shaping them and called himself an ally of Tetsui. When the land gangs and the people came to blows, the emperor defended the people. The land gangs had no expectations that he would do anything but side against them.

Even so, dispatching the expeditionary forces of the Imperial Army to confront the land gangs was entirely out of the norm. Here as well, the emperor was putting the iron in his resolve on display. No longer would the land gangs be allowed to do as they pleased.

Think of a kingdom as established on the two pillars of the government and the law, and it was only natural for the land gangs that flaunted the law and opposed the government to be regarded as enemies of the state. Except the land gangs had a say in the matter too. Was the government really an ally of the people? Did the kingdom never inflict harm on its subjects? Were the land gangs always in the wrong?

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Only the names of the mountains stayed the same. Everything else was up for grabs.

Most of the miners were refugees and drifters denied the customary protections of the government and the order promised by the law. They looked askance at both and followed their own rules. As the de facto governing body, the land gangs administered the only law the miners respected. The foundational pillars of their polity were money and a clenched fist.

However, their failure to conform to imperial processes and procedures meant the land gangs could offer no long-term guarantees of their own. With no place in the political system carved out for them, they had no access to the full faith and credit of the kingdom. So when the new emperor assumed the throne and set about putting the kingdom’s house in order, the land gangs were slated for elimination.

As far as the land gangs were concerned, they had no choice but to live on. No one was going to tell them to abandon everything they’d fought for up to now.

They knew well where the emperor stood on every matter concerning them. The land gangs of Bun Province had every reason to fear that the accession of the new emperor meant losing the livelihoods they had built for themselves. Given the recent events in Koumon, the possibility remained very real. But that didn’t mean they were foolish enough to believe they could eliminate the emperor.

As long as that was out of the question, so was bringing an end to his reign and all the policies that sprang from it. And yet none of them could countenance simple surrender. Most of those in the land gangs believed they had to find a way to guarantee the survival of what they called home in the new dynasty.

Pointing to their achievements on the mountain as a precedent, they had to move from an illegal to a legal footing while remaining as free as possible from the constraints of the shire government. Rensoku made this argument often, and Kyuusan didn’t disagree.

And thus he concluded that whatever assistance he provided Kyuujo must be along those same lines. The land gangs of Koumon raised their own standard of revolt and occupied Kohaku in order to defend their place in the world. That was why it was necessary for Kyuusan to offer Koumon his support.

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Except the crew in Koumon had a nasty way of getting things done. Kyuusan was not impressed by the way they stormed Kohaku and even less by the occupation that followed. To put it bluntly, they behaved like a bunch of petty and capricious tyrants, the kind of behavior that only reinforced every bad thing ever said about the land gangs.

Moreover, their actions played right into the hands of the new emperor. He now had all the reasons he needed to deploy the Palace Guard against them, pledging to put a halt to the atrocities of the land gangs. Kyuujo tasked Kyuusan with keeping watch to make sure the local folk didn’t take advantage the advancing Palace Guard to launch their own rebellion against the land gangs.

To be honest, his heart just wasn’t in it. What is going to come of all this? They were wringing their own necks.

“Let’s teach them that they can’t push around the land gangs of Bun Province,” said the more excitable among them.

Don’t be a bunch of idiots, Kyuusan silently rebuked them.

On top of that, Kyuujo’s orders grew increasingly bizarre. One time, Kyuusan was instructed not to allow anybody into the area surrounding Kan’you Mountain, not only soldiers and civilians, but other gang factions too. Another time he was told to hunt soldiers, and then to attack towns and drive off the inhabitants as well. He was also told to go here or go there and deliver a beat-down to another gang.

Kyuusan had no idea what Kyuujo was doing. When he asked for explanations, Kyuujo only said he was following the orders he’d been given and didn’t know either.

Gripped by a debt of honor he couldn’t cast aside, getting tossed this way and that in utter confusion, Kyuusan could only conclude that someone was deadly serious about driving the new emperor and the power to smash the land gangs out of Bun Province. He didn’t think anything like that was remotely possible.

But then came the news that, amidst the chaos, the emperor had disappeared.

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That deadly serious someone had hatched an impossible plan and carried it off.

Unbelievable.

The land gangs were all over the map when it came to the emperor. As far as the kingdom and its subjects were concerned, having an emperor was all for the best. Kyuusan had been one of those miners who traced his roots back to life as a refugee, so he could see the justice in rescuing them from that plight, and making sure that they would never have to return to that life again.

If the emperor was deposed, and the throne once again left empty, the land gangs would continue on their merry way. But the kingdom would decline and fall. He couldn’t imagine how they would benefit from such an outcome.

Kyuusan gradually distanced himself from Kyuujo. At the same time, he prepared for the and looked for ways to guarantee the survival of him and his mates. The demise of the emperor was rumored about, as was the enthronement of an emperor pro tempore. The emperor’s retinue were accused of sedition against the provisional government and declared enemies of the people. The carnage that followed reached an unbelievable intensity.

Bun Province fell into chaos. Amidst the pandemonium, Kyuusan achieved complete control of Kan’you Mountain. Kyuujo, on the other hand, was captured and executed as a common criminal. Rensoku was once again driven from his position of power and was later killed by brigands, though the word went around that he’d been assassinated.

Rensoku’s faction fled in all directions, though many were captured in short order and executed as rebels or criminals. Separated from the mountains, not only Rensoku’s men but the land gangs in general wandered about without any sense of purpose. And practically before anybody took notice, the vast majority had simply fallen off the face of the earth.

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“Kyuusan, what do you conclude from all these developments?” Risai asked, because she knew this big man was no fool and no run-of-the-mill highwayman.

“I got the feeling we were pawns in somebody else’s game. Somewhere higher up, that somebody played us like pieces on a board. Somebody who harbored not a speck of good intentions toward the land gangs, who used us up and threw us away when the job was done.”

On that note, Kyuusan let Risai and the others go. They walked back to Sokou together. It was Kyuusan who suggested they find a place to get something to eat.

“Asen must be at the root of all this,” Risai said, putting a name to Kyuusan’s someone. “Asen had to drag His Highness out into the open. Whatever he was scheming, Gyousou-sama was too well defended in the Imperial Palace. Asen had to separate him as much as possible from his retainers and create an opportunity where he held the high ground. The opportunity he created was in Bun Province.”

“Because the land gangs had the free run of the place?”

“Not that, I don’t think. More likely because of Tetsui. His Highness had deep ties to Tetsui. If something happened in Tetsui, he absolutely could not look the other way. Tetsui was in danger so he ran to the rescue. That’s why your someone orchestrated an attack on Tetsui.”

“And since we’re talking about Bun Province, it’d only be natural for the land gangs to play the part of the villain.”

“Indeed. Moreover, those particular land gangs happened to be bad to the bone to begin with. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise.”

“Because of what had happened in Tetsui. If anybody in those gangs showed any inclination to think things through and talk things over, the emperor might have pulled back on the reins and listened to what they had to say.”

Risai nodded. She couldn’t help but be impressed. Kyuusan had a good head on his shoulders.

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“Hence the need to keep those bad actors all riled up. But only to a degree. Beyond that would be worse. If Bun Province turned into a complete firestorm, the emperor would have stayed put. Despite his affections for Tetsui, things spinning out of control could still put a halt to everything. The blaze had to be just big enough to get him to come running. So the land gangs were thrown into the fray. Using them kept the scale of the chaos in check.”

“Makes sense to me. Asen always paid attention to those fine details.” Looking back on it now, the whole thing had the feel of Asen’s handiwork from the start.

“When the crew at Koumon went so far as to occupy Kohaku, it struck me as such a stupid strategy that I could have been convinced the emperor dreamed it up.”

“Meaning what?” Kyoshi wondered.

But Risai nodded. “Meaning the Koumon land gangs and His Highness did a deal under the table. The land gangs played the role of the bad guys. By defeating and driving them out, His Highness won over the hearts and minds of the people of Bun Province.”

“Rumors to that effect reached my ears too. When I called them stupid and said they were being too clever for their own good, Rensoku said that was the whole point. All the more convenient for this high and mighty someone to make everything out to be consequence of a cunning plan.”

“And for that they sacrificed the people of Kohaku?” Houto interrupted in a rage. “The furthest thing from a cunning plan.”

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Kyuusan answered with a wry smile, “Rensoku didn’t say anything about the emperor. I don’t think he thought about the man that way. I’m pretty sure he meant the emperor that came after him, this provisional emperor.”

“In other words, Asen.”

Kyuusan nodded. “With the new emperor disposed of, the provisional emperor—no, the Pretender—rises up in his stead. But the Pretender also needs Bun Province back in his grasp. If you’re dealing with a bunch of simple-minded villains, it’s an easy story to tell.”

“Yeah, I see.”

“In fact, I’m sure everyone around Rensoku saw things the same way he did. They knew from what happened in Tetsui that the emperor was a man committed to doing right by his subjects. Yeah, scoundrels like us wouldn’t be welcome in the dynasty of this new emperor. But there were worse scoundrels trying to depose him and steal the throne. There was nothing honorable or just about the villains plotting to usurp his position. So maybe if we put in the work, we could make a role of the land gangs in the new dynasty.”

Kyuusan added with a thin smile, “If we don’t start thinking that way, we’re never going to see eye to eye. I know we’re not bunch of geniuses, but we’re at least smart enough to look down the road and tell a winning hand from a losing one. The fools who can’t tell the difference will never get the job done the way a boss like Rensoku did.”

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Risai nodded, fully in agreement with Kyuusan’s words. At the same time, she felt a sharp pang of regret. If nothing else, Kyuusan had one thing right. The land gangs sprang to life from the ruins of the previous dynasty. While she couldn’t agree that struggling to get by in life justified a life of crime, she understood the tragic circumstances that drove them to such choices. It was an era when the average man could believe he had no other options.

Setting aside the question of whether bad times justified unlawful means, they were trying hard to survive. As a reward for that effort, they got taken advantage of and tossed aside. With all the land gangs lumped in together, no one shed a tear on their behalf. It was a sad state of affairs from beginning to end.

A few parts of Sokou continued to function close to normal, still full of disorder but also full of life. Small restaurants and food stalls, stores selling used clothes and sundries. And no lack of pedestrians strolling the avenues.

“Quite a number of people around,” Kyoshi observed. “Are they all from the land gangs?”

“A fair number of them are miners. We’re not far from Kantaku, you see.”

The gemstone fountains entrusted to Kyuusan before the troubles were alive and well. During the campaigns against the land gangs, the mountain was temporarily purged of their presence. Except as it turned out, the mountain couldn’t function without them. So they returned. Kantaku as well drove off Kyuusan for a spell. But without Kyuusan’s guiding hand, the business ground to a halt.

To make matter worse, Kantaku fell under the jurisdiction of Kohaku. The city had been left in ruins after the occupation by the land gangs and the shire administrator killed. The new administrator had no experience running a mining operation. In any case, given the sad state Kohaku was in, it desperately needed the tax revenue from Kantaku.

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“In the end, we returned to Kantaku, only to discover the crew from Koumon had poached every stone in the fountains down to the bare soil.”

They set out to culture new stones in the fountains, but it would take a good amount of time before they yielded gems worth putting on the market. The greatest demand was for stones between the size of a common coin and the size of fist. The former alone took over a year to culture, the latter several more. In the meantime, they’d have to tide things over by digging out the pebbles and gravel.

“We recruited more miners and prospected for new mines. But to be honest, the yields are poor. Miners are always looking for work. They end up here in Sokou, biding their time until something turns up. And then there’s all of their friends and relations. Most of the shops around here are run by the families of gang members. There are more of them around than there are of us of the old land gangs. What it comes down to is, we’ve lost a whole lot of men since the troubles six years ago.”

Exact figures were hard to come by these days, but in Sokou they numbered around two thousand. Of those, no more than two hundred were actual gang members. The rest were friends and relations, or anybody with some sort of connection living under their protection, such as the families of their deceased mates, or those receiving patronage in exchange for their cooperation with Kyuusan’s gang.

“To speak the unvarnished truth, we’re talking about refugees and drifters. The majority of those here lost access to their census records a long time ago.”

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As a result of war or natural disasters, refugees were those temporarily separated from their registered allotments. Drifters, on the other hand, abandoned their census records and allotments, and thus removed themselves from the protections and guarantees of the kingdom. Although people sometimes did so of their own volition, for employment or other reasons, in many cases they’d been burned out of their homes, their villages left in ruins, their census records lost or destroyed.

“Didn’t your father run away from his village? What about his registry card?”

The registry card listed where a person’s census record was registered when he left the town or hamlet he was born in.

Answering Risai’s question, Kyuusai explained, “He discarded when he left. Even if it didn’t, a miner has to give up his registry card when he goes into the mines. It’s a rule on the mountain. If things get tough, he might run away if he still had it.”

“What about the rest of the family?”

“Same for them. Though my father died in a cave-in. My frail little sister and mother both fell ill and died. I couldn’t give them the food or the medicine they needed. There was nothing I could do. I did what I could do. I harbor no regrets now.”

“You’re on your own, then?”

“I’ve got a wife and a few relatives, along with four children.”

Risai blinked. “But you’re drifters, aren’t you?”

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There was no way a couple could have children without being officially registered in a village.

“Not mine. My wife had two daughters before she was widowed and a house in the mountains. Her husband died. She married a gang member after that. He got killed in a fight when the troubles broke out. I adopted them. Two more mates of mine died during that time. Each had a son. And one had three more surviving relatives. Add to that my wife’s mother and an older man—we go way back—who lost a leg in the troubles. Eleven altogether. One big family.”

Kyuusan grinned as he counted them up.

“And you look after all of them.”

“Well, it’s not like I’m supporting them by myself. One of my sons is already a full-fledged member of the gang. The other works in the gravel pits with the two kids of another of my colleagues. My wife is a cook at the inn back there.”

Kyuusan said with a more knowing smile, “They don’t dig enough out of gravel pits to support a family. The job of the land gangs in the first place was keeping the mountains shipshape. The miners are the ones who bring in the money. When the mines run dry, our income dries up as well. My wife is the one putting food on the table these days.”

Everyone in the land gangs was scraping by living on his past earnings. The goods they’d stocked up on back when the money was good had lost most of their value. That was how a man went broke—gradually and then suddenly. He’d wake up one morning only to discover the cupboards were bare.

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“And the next day they find themselves shaking down travelers for pocket change. Because going hungry is not an option.”

“Eleven people is a substantial burden. I can’t excuse robbery as an occupation, but I can understand the circumstances that might lead a man in that direction.”

“Yeah, it is tough. I became a drifter before I grew up so I figured that kids were off the table for good. But children are a good thing. They give you a reason to get up in the morning.”

“You don’t say.” Risai smiled.

Returning to Kyoshi’s earlier question, Kyuusan said, “At the end of the highway, the last stop before your reach Kan’you Mountain, is a town called Anpuku. Probably a hundred of us there.”

And maybe three hundred on Kan’you Mountain itself. Past Kan’you Mountain to the west, there were two hundred or so in the town of Seisai. Eight hundred households all together.

 “I am not well versed about the current state of the land gangs. Is that a lot or a little?”

“Compared to our numbers back in the day, a drop in the bucket. When the troubles broke out, a powerful boss might have three thousand under his command. At the top of his game, Rensoku had at least that many answering to him.”

“Similar to the population of a shire,” Risai said aloud. Of course, she thought. Those kinds of numbers went a long way to explaining what had made the land gangs such a formidable force.

Even at a scale of hundreds, the land gangs also had friends and relations to account for. Strictly speaking, not gang members but the many people who relied on and associated with them.

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“You won’t find gang lords like that around these days. It’s a rare boss with more than a thousand under him. Many more in-between. We, for one, hold the mountain and most of the surrounding land.”

“But the main cities around here are Sokou, Anpuku and Seisai. And Kan’you Mountain. That’s a pretty small population to support all of them.”

“Pretty small. Well, as long as we can count on not getting attacked by the kingdom or the province, we’ll get by somehow.”

The only viable assaults on Kan’you Mountain could be launched north from Rin’u or east from Tetsui. Sokou and Seisai took on the role of lookouts in that regard.

“It’d be easy enough to sustain a retreat as far as Anpuku. But if worse came to worse, we’d need an escape route for the women and children. From here, though, they could flee directly to Jou Province.”

“You’ve got towns and land. What about parceling it out to the refugees? Finding housing for them is a significant problem. I’m sure they’d work hard in exchange for a house and land.”

“In turn, the government would impose on us its taxes and regulations. When that happens, count on them going back to branding us rebels, if not enemies of the people. Sure, it’s a shame to see the land and buildings going to waste, but our hands are pretty much tied. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.”

“Yeah, I see what you mean,” Risai muttered.

Kyuusan laughed.

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“What?” Risai asked.

“You’re one of the kingdom’s high and mighty. Yet I do believe you’re beginning to see the world the way we do.”

“That doesn’t mean I condone the way the land gangs chose to live their lives. But going on airily about the rule of law and such doesn’t solve any problems either. Any viable solution has got to start with recognizing that fact first.”

“You don’t say,” Kyuusan said. Then he added, “That sort of talk sails way over our heads. We have no idea whether the emperor is good for us in the long run or not.” He turned to face her directly. “But as for whether Asen is good for us or not? We know the answer to that one. He isn’t.”

“Hence the importance of driving Asen from the throne,” Risai said.

“And then what? The emperor is dead,” Kyuusan said. “An era with an empty throne would be worse than whatever Asen’s up to.”

“The emperor is not dead,” Risai said, but Kyuusan appeared to treat such a statement as little more than wishful thinking.

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“At the time, a strongly-worded advisory came down to stay away from Kan’you Mountain. If it was the provisional emperor—Asen or whoever—who was using the land gangs, then it figures it was also Asen who cleaned out the area around Kan’you Mountain. He was setting the stage to kill the emperor. In fact, during the march, a guy who looked like the emperor was seen in the company of troops moving into the mountain. An unsavory bunch, according to the reports we heard.”

“We have heard similar stories from other sources,” Risai pointed out. “His Highness being escorted somewhere. Are we talking actual eyewitnesses?”

“It was during the mopping-up operations. A crew wearing decked out in gaudy red and black armor. Don’t know their names. I believe they called themselves the Shakou.

“The Shakou—”

The Red Armor. Risai wracked her brains but came up with nothing. This was the third time she’d heard about a company of soldiers wearing red armor. It was common practice to give soldiers uniforms and equipment commensurate with their duties. Officers outfitted their own men with armor and weapons. When distributing the gear, the armor in particular often had a similar style and appearance.

“It was like they had eyes on the back of their heads, their senses were that sharp. They fought with a skill and brutality that sent a chill down even our spines.”

“They were that good?”

“I absolutely would not want to cross swords with any of them.”

Risai again craned her head to the side in confusion. She couldn’t think of any military detachment with anything resembling such a reputation.

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“They must have been the ones that attacked the emperor and killed him on the mountain.”

“The body of His Highness was never found,” Houto stated emphatically.

“Because they hid the remains. They were last seen leaving with him. The body turning up later would be tantamount to a confession.”

The rest of them had no way to answer that logic.

“Ah, you wouldn’t be searching for the emperor, would you? If you expect to find him on Kan’you Mountain, I’d tell you to give up on that dream. But if you can’t take no for an answer, your best bet is to take your search to the heart of the mountain.”

Noting Risai’s startled look, Kyuusan explained with a thin smile, “At any rate, the time is coming when we’re going to pack up and leave too. This isn’t what we were talking about before. The gravel pits are playing out. Cave-ins are commonplace. We’ve suffered more big mineshaft collapses than we care to count. And then there are youma welling up from deep underground. They’re small critters for now, but their big brothers and sisters are gonna show up soon or later.”

Kyuusan concluded with a bitter laugh. “That’s why we’ve all but abandoned the mountain to its own fate.”

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