Hills of Silver Ruins

Chapter 10

8-5 Risai, Houto and Kyoshi set off from Sokou the next day. Kyuusan accompanied them. They parted ways with Kenchuu. With none other than Kyuusan as their guide for the rest of the way to Kan’you Mountain, he’d decided to return to Rin’u.

“We are very grateful to you for coming this far,” Risai said.

Kenchuu responded only with a nod.

Kyoshi and Houto said their goodbyes and saw him off.

They took the highway out of Sokou and headed north. Kan’you Mountain rose majestically like a great wall at the far reaches of the valley. Rising even higher behind it, shrouded in watery gray clouds, the peaks of the You Range pierced the heavens.

The highway out of Sokou climbed the valley straight to the north. Walking their borrowed horses along in a line, Kyoshi glanced over his shoulder and raised a soft cry of alarm. The rest of them followed his gaze. Two human figures emerged from the dilapidated roka alongside the road they had just passed, an adult and a small child, hand in hand.

“That’s—” Risai said. Her faced clouded over.

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Kyoshi’s expression showed the same mixed feelings. Despite that terrifying experience the day before, the mother had again set off with her daughter. Traveling on horseback, Kyoshi, Risai, Houto, and Kyuusan had just caught up with them. They must have been taking a break in the broken-down building, having left Sokou as soon as the gates opened.

No matter what, they were determined to stay the course.

Kyoshi looked up at a sky covered with thin clouds. The clouds shrouding the mountains to the north were deeper and darker, a harbinger of the snow soon to come.

“An impressive degree of resolve,” Houto said in a small voice.

Risai agreed with a sad nod.

They continued along at the briskest pace the horses could comfortably carry them. Along the way, they stopped at Anpuku. On foot, Anpuku was relatively small city a day’s walk from Sokou. Nevertheless, it was defended by the barrier walls and ramparts typical of a shire castle, along with a pair of redoubts. Considering the number of gang members Kenkyuu had under his control, a size suitable to its defense.

The mountain loomed to the north of the city. To the east, two high hills enclosed a thin strip of farmland. The highway here veered to the west as it climbed the narrowing valley. A mountain river ran alongside the highway, coursing through a deep channel gouged into the earth, then cut across the highway south of Anpuku. Reaching Anpuku from the south required crossing the bridge over the river

In terms of locational advantage, Anpuku held the high ground. There were bigger cities along the way, but placing his stronghold here reflected Kyuusan’s natural grasp of military geography.

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“Hakushi on the Kan’you Mountain pilgrimage enter the mountain from the west and leave from the east between those two hills.”

Anpuku and Kan’you Mountain together formed the inner citadel of the territory held by the land gangs.

Kenkyuu explained, “We’ve got men working on Kan’you Mountain. Their families stay here while they’re away. We keep two other cities up and running in case we get attacked and they need an escape route.”

Sokou was the crossroads for the highway headed east while Seisai was the key city along the way from Tetsui. If enemy forces marched from Rin’u, they would wait for them in Sokou, buying time for the women and children to flee from Seisai. By the same token, if the attack came from Tetsui, they would make a stand at Seisai, slowing the advance long enough to give the civilians time to flee Sokou.

“The road from Tetsui wasn’t built to move a large force under arms to begin with. But better safe than sorry. We simply don’t have the size or strength to lock horns with the provincial or imperial armies. We’d barricade ourselves in the city and hold out long enough to allow our friends and families to slip out the back. Giving it our all, that’s the best we could do.”

“And if an attack came from Rin’u and Tetsui at the same time?” Kyoshi wondered aloud.

“We’d throw up our hands and beg for our lives,” Kyuusan said with a hearty laugh. “Supposing things ever got that far given the likes of us. If we found ourselves under siege in both Seisai and Sokou, we’d have no place to run. At best we could head for the hills and wait for things to simmer down.”

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“You really wouldn’t have another way to escape?”

“Not really,” Kyuusan said. “Of course, if we’re facing off against the regular army, a force that size has to move along the major highways. They’d come marching down the road. We’d leave the beaten track and take the footpaths into the mountains, leading them on a wild goose chase while we scattered to the four winds. Though if they got it into their heads to finish what they started, I don’t suppose they’d leave us be.”

“Well,” Risai said. “If they were determined to wipe you out, they’d attack from Rin’u and Tetsui and make sure to shut down all the trails and side roads.”

“Yeah, I figured as much,” Kyuusan grinned. “But wipe us out to what end? Supposing they came at us from all sides, that could only be because somebody decided retake Kan’you Mountain. The mountain would be the goal, not eliminating us. In that case, we could abandon the Kan’you Mountain and be done with it. Before that, we’d play for time to make sure everybody who needed to get away got away. Anybody tainted as a member of the land gangs was sure to see the inside of a jail.”

p. 135

“I see,” Risai muttered as they climbed the deserted road.

They reached the crest of the gentle slope, passed a big city long reduced the ruins, and by sunset arrived at Kan’you Mountain. The highway continued to rise to the west. They turned north and crossed a bridge over the river. The road here appeared cut from the face of the mountain. Clusters of houses lined both sides of the road, each ringed by tall walls, forming a jumble of villages of varied sizes.

The road wound between the villages and ended at the entrance to Kan’you Mountain itself.

The rugged barrier wall formed a tall arc right before the mountain. A tower gate guarded the approach. A gate road at least twice the usual length led the traveler inside. Down the gate road, at the far end of a large plaza, the black mouth of a tunnel gaped open beneath the overhanging cliff. The weathered signboard over the ornate doorway burrowed into the side of the mountain read, “Kan’you Mountain.”

Building of various shapes and sizes lined the plaza. Overwhelming all of them was the barrier wall itself. As could be ascertained from the length of the gate road, the thickness of the wall alone set it apart from the norm. With the wall pushed outwards in a bowed arc, clusters of four and five storey residences climbed the inner slope. Openings bored into the wall formed doors and windows. Wooden corridors ran between them, climbing flights of stairs to each individual domicile.

Though ragged and worn, the rooms appeared to be in use. Windows gaped open here and there. Freshly washed clothing hung from the corridor railings. Recent rough repairs made by Kyuusan’s men had clearly been done with whatever was on hand. And while sufficient to keep out the wind and the rain, nothing about the place appeared the least bit comfortable.

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They passed by the warehouses and equipment barns that bordered the broad gate road and entered the ornate doorway. Inside the doorway, a large tunnel had been carved into the bedrock. The floor was paved with quarried stone, but the long years of miners and their carts moving back and forth across the rough surface had worn it down to a smooth gloss.

After walking a little while longer, they came to the end of the tunnel. The sky appeared above. They found themselves in a large and open space. Tall cliffs formed the walls of the round room.

As Risai gazed up at the sky, Kyuusan said, “It had a roof way back when. The roof caved in at some point and formed this pit.”

“The mountain is that unstable?”

“The whole mountain is a house of cards. The rock isn’t any more brittle than elsewhere. But the mines are old. The tunnels run through the mountain like a spider’s web. Every tunnel demands that many more ventilation shafts, leaving the mountain full of holes. It’s like everything is just ready and waiting to fall apart. You’ll find the remains of recent cave-ins wherever you look. It’s not that any one place is more fragile than another. It’s just that no one knows what will cause the next collapse or when.”

Kyuusan smiled. “Don’t even clap your hands, let alone whistle. Those are taboos among the miners.”

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“You’re kidding. Clapping and whistling aren’t going to cause cave-ins.”

“So you would think. But it’s hard getting those taboos out of your head.”

Risai nodded and flashed a wry smile.

The ragged remnants of the ceiling cantilevered over the cliffs like unfinished eaves. Back in the day, the tunnel would have brought them to a big underground cavern. Then the ceiling fell in, turning the cavern into a plaza ringed by palisades. The ceiling collapsed several generations before. Pine trees and shrubs had taken root atop the cliffs and since grown to a considerable size. The roots snaked down the cliff face, channeling a dripping curtain of water.

The wall of the plaza was pocketed with the gaping entrances to more tunnels. Some continued along the same plane while others plunged deeper underground. The slope of the inclines varied from tunnel to tunnel. The stone floor of those worn smooth from use reflected their age. Others boasted carefully constructed flights of stairs. And then there were those that practically dropped straight down.

“Over there is the only working mine shaft.”

Kyuusan pointed at an excavated depression and the rightmost mouth of three tunnels bored into the wall. Taking a step inside revealed that though it was younger than the rest, the floor and walls were well worn down. A latticework of lumber and logs formed a series of stairs. The light slanting into the chamber did not reach the inside of the tunnel. Lanterns occupied the regularly-spaced nooks in the walls.

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“Still looks pretty old,” Houto said, peering into the mineshaft. “And you say it leads to an active mine face?”

Kyuusan nodded. He indicated the tracks affixed to the latticework. “The carts roll along those rails. With the lanterns and the tracks, that’s how we move the ore around.”

“Any other mines?”

“This is the only one with any life left in it. It’s pretty far to the working face of the mine but they’re still hauling out low quality stones. Fewer and fewer over the years, though. The stones worth keeping in a single cart barely reach thirty percent these days. Sometimes I want to tell them that the rewards aren’t worth the effort, but there’s no work for them off the mountain either. So they patiently keep their shoulders to the wheel. Except when—”

“Except when youma show up.”

“It’s happened three times so far. Two of them were youma and one was a youjuu. Thankfully, none were the kind that indiscriminately hunt humans. But those encounters caused a fair amount of grief. One of them appeared in a mineshaft out of nowhere. Two were dug out of the rock. The miners working the mine face found them hibernating in a void in the earth. As a result, they got plenty spooked about digging any further.”

Common wisdom held that when a kingdom fell into turmoil, the youma roiled up out of the ground. When peaceful times came around again, the youma returned to the earth and slept there. Risai believed the common wisdom was not far off the mark.

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“The miners were ecstatic when they hit the void in the rock. That usually means a depleted water channel. If it’d been the source of a gemstone fountain, they might find a motherload of stones. Even the aquifer for an ordinary spring can collect gem fragments. Their reward was a youma instead.”

“Bad luck.” Risai nodded. “You said some of them were serious about abandoning the mine. Is there really no other way to make end meet?”

“Hard to say,” Kyuusan said with a grim smile. “There’s always Kantaku, but those mines played out years ago. Nobody expects to hit paydirt now. Moving to another mountain is always on the table. But every mountain has its own gang. We’ve ruled the roost around here for so long, bowing down to the gang on another mountain is a complete nonstarter. If push comes to shove, we’d have to drive them off, and no place in Bun Province is producing the kind of yields worth fighting over.”

“How about getting an honest job?”

“Sure, if we could earn enough to live on. The land gangs are like big families. We’ve got plenty of the aged, plenty of the infirmed. Find me a job that would allow me to support them and I’ll happily put in for a change of occupations. If you happen to know of any such open positions, please let me know.”

Risai had no answer for him on that account.

Houto asked him, “Kyuusan, are you familiar with all the mines in the area?”

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“Hardly. Nobody has a handle on all of them. This mountain is huge.”

“We believe that the emperor was attacked somewhere around here. We have no idea of the specific location.”

Kyuusan furrowed his brows and folded his arms in a contemplative manner. “You guys seem to believe that this mountain was the stage for an assassination. To be sure, somebody was clearing out the inhabitants from around Kan’you Mountain at the time, but I don’t see how that means they were setting up an assassination here. The foothills would work just as well.”

“It’s not like we don’t have any basis for believing that,” Houto said, looking at Risai for guidance.

Risai continued, “An article of His Highness’s clothing was discovered in a shipment of ore from here.”

“Really?”

“The shipment was headed for Han. If my memory serves, back then, only Kan’you Mountain was shipping ore to Han.”

“You are right on that.”

Kyuusan explained that Kan’you Mountain didn’t have the only operating mines. But only Kan’you Mountain produced enough ore to justify shipping it across the kingdom to foreign markets.

“Setting the quality aside, we had the facilities in place to deliver that volume. But at the time the emperor disappeared, I don’t believe any excavations were going on.”

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“Is that true?”

Kyuusan shrugged. “I don’t know the fine details well enough to make a definite statement. But there is a guy who does. You should ask him.” He turned on his heels and grinned at them. “If one of those dugout houses suits your purposes, you’re welcome to stay here and keep searching until your curiosity is satisfied. My only condition is that you live and let live. Don’t go interfering in anybody’s business.”

“You’re looking for somebody on this mountain?”

The guy Kyuusan said knew the fine details was an old man who worked in the dining hall. He’d been on and around Kan’you Mountain since he was a youngster.

“Quite the task you’ve set for yourselves.”

Risai asked him, “Have you ever come across any evidence of an attack taking place on the mountain?”

“Nope. Well, if you’re talking about the occasional brawl, signs of something like that’s not going to stick around for long.”

“People would have been killed. There’d be blood left behind. And dead bodies.”

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“Hmm,” the old man said, lining up bowls filled with rice gruel on the counter. “Haven’t caught wind of any such disturbances. Only been on the mountain once of late. Right before the troubles broke out. It was the end of the year, I think. That’s how closed down Kan’you Mountain is these days.” The old man stared off into the space, searching his memories. “Most operations came to a halt before that. No good stones were left in the mines. The gemstone fountains had already dried up.”

The oldest and biggest gemstone fountains in the Kingdom of Tai started to run dry toward the end of the reign of Emperor Kyou. The flows of water diminished and the quality declined. It took time to culture stones from scratch. If the end results didn’t justify all the effort, the miners would just as soon abandon the mountain.

“What I heard was, the last miners pulled out of Kan’you Mountain during the era of the empty throne. A few stragglers stuck around and dug for low-grade stones. They didn’t find enough to make a profit. That’s when operations ground to a halt. Though the mountain wasn’t sealed tight.”

Nobody was working on Kan’you Mountain, but the province still exercised administrative control and posted sentries along the access roads to defend the mountain.

“There were people who got permission to dig. Miners with buyers who didn’t care if the stones were low grade. Prospectors hoping to stake new claims. And rock hunters chasing down old era stones.”

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“Old era stones?” Risai asked.

“Stones discovered by sifting through the tailings from mines excavated in past dynasties. There are tales of whole armfuls of white jade being discovered that way. The story is, the jade had first been found at the face of the mine, but then a cave-in or some other disaster buried all those needles under a haystack of earth.”

That jade had supposedly been uncovered by prospectors searching for new veins of ore.

“They would have made a fortune overnight. Then there are cultured gems that were abandoned and discovered later. Maybe a cave-in cut off access. Or the claim owner met a sudden death and took his secrets to the grave. Miners are famously tight-lipped about the location of their gemstone fountains, so if they or their workers die in an accident or battle, that location can be lost forever.”

The old man elaborated with a mischievous grin, “I’ve heard of miners inserting keystones into the support arches such that removing them will cause the whole shaft to collapse.”

He chuckled. Who could confirm or deny whether any of this was true or not?

“There are as many of these legends and fairy tales as there are rock hunters. Even when a mountain shuts down operations, they get permits from the province and head into the mines. Haven’t heard rumors of any big finds, though.”

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And then there were those who took a more studied approach, starting their search for the gemstone fountains by studying the written notes and other clues the miners left behind. The repository for the harvested stones should be found not far from a fountain. Find a lost fountain and a fortune awaited them. Believers in those tales also sporadically ventured into the mountains.

“The winds of change shifted around with His Majesty’s enthronement. A new province lord arrived in Bun. He declared that the low-grade scrap stones were worth mining too. Anything to help the people scrape by. Large-scale mining took off once again. Up till then, the government raked off the lion’s share of the profits, but now we were told the more we mined the merrier, and we could keep all of what we earned.”

The old man added with a broad grin, “Those were good times. Even if you weren’t digging up the best stones, you could make a little off each one. We finally had work that was worth the effort. But those good times lasted half a year. Right before the troubles with the land gangs began, the whole mountain shut down. Nobody knew why but that was the end of it. The Provincial Guard pulled out too. Nobody was left on the mountain.”

Those events took place right after the troubles with the land gangs broke out, followed by the occupation of Kohaku.

“About the time His Majesty disappeared. There was nobody on Kan’you Mountain and nobody was allowed to get anywhere close.”

“Nobody at all?”

“That’s what I heard. Not only Kan’you Mountain. Nobody but the land gangs could set foot on the whole mountain range.”

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The old man furrowed his brow. His voice took on a serious tone. “Somebody was cooking up bad things on Kan’you Mountain. That’s what I think. The way they were clearing the people out of there, everybody was on edge. It was the land gangs doing it, but even they were told to keep their distance.”

“Bad things?”

The old man said with a big nod, “That was when His Majesty disappeared, right? Somebody must have attacked him, right? I can’t say whether they were out to kill him or kidnap him, but I’m pretty sure they used the land gangs to get everybody out of the way. Whoever this guy was, he didn’t want anybody seeing him on Kan’you Mountain. Not even the land gangs caught a glimpse. That’s why the place got swept clean as a whistle.”

“In order to kill the emperor on Kan’you Mountain.”

“Yeah. I figure the pretender must have done the deed. Makes me mad just thinking about it.”

Risai agreed with a bob of her head. “It was uninhabited until you people ventured back in?”

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“Not quite,” the old man said. “Mining operations started up again once the troubles were put down and the traders got back to business. I don’t know whether the word came down from the province or the guys with the money started petitioning for permits. The townspeople and miners driven out before the troubles came back. The mountain returned to the way it was before it was shut down. Then came the purges. This city and that town were accused of harboring traitors or being rebel bases and were attacked and destroyed. Injustices like that brought youma out of the sea and large-scale mining came to a halt.”

At the time, most of excavated ore was flagged for export. Considering the low quality of the stones, the only way to turn a profit was to dig as much as possible and sell it at any price. But the townspeople were gone and so were the transporters. The costs of bringing in labor from elsewhere were too great. Moreover, even if they managed to move the ore to harbors on the Kyokai, it wouldn’t move. Youma had invaded the sea lanes. Shipping dropped to practically nothing. Eventually everything came to a halt.

The old man said with a hollow smile, “The miners abandoned the mines, the traders pulled out, and the mountain was left empty once again. That’s when we stepped in.”

“Did you return to Kan’you Mountain when operations started up again?”

“Naw. When the mountain closed and we got tossed out, I didn’t look back. I was scraping rock bottom when the boss took me under his wing and got me a job in Kantaku as a cook. I returned when the boss decided the time was right to take over the territory.”

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“When you got back, did you encounter any evidence of a bloody assault or dead bodies or anything?”

“Nope. If there was, the miners would have buried any remains they found. But I never heard of them stumbling across anything like that.” Some of the miners had been there ever since, he added.

“But some of the emperor’s effects were found in ore shipped from here. The destination was Han.”

“Han? Then it came from Kan’you Mountain. Supposing the emperor was attacked on Kan’you Mountain, they’d hardly do it at an active mine face. More like a mine shaft out of public view. A lot easier to clean up after themselves. And if you’re not in a working mine, then how does your stuff get mixed in with the ore?”

Risai asked, “How would that happen somewhere other than a working mine?”

The old man folded his arms and pondered the question. “The ore brought out from the mine face is deposited at the mouth of the shaft. Maybe that’s where.”

“That suggested someone mixed it in with the ore on purpose.”

“It does,” the old man agreed. As if a thought had just occurred to him, he glanced around the room. There were a dozen people in the cafeteria. It was still a little before meal time. “Hey,” he called to an older man. “When you came back after the mountain reopened, didn’t you say you smelled something fishy?”

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The older man raised his head and nodded. “Sure did. Smelled like the inside of mine and lamps and campfires. The idea we got was, someone raided the place while we were away.”

“Raided the place?” Risai echoed.

“Thanks,” the old man said with a wave. He nodded in response to Risai’s question. “Like he said. During the time the mountain was inhabited, someone was up there doing digs. Though not where we had operating mines. The miners could tell if anybody was poaching their claims. Whatever happened went on deeper in, somebody digging in an unused claim, and that smell must have wafted down the mine shafts. I’d hazard they kept the good stuff for themselves and discarded the tailings outside the mountain. My guess is that whatever was mixed in with the tailings ended up in a shipment to Han.”

“How possible is that? Weren’t all the people on the mountain cleared out between the time it was closed until it reopened?”

“Anybody determined to sneak in is going to sneak in. No shortage of those interlopers.” They were mostly small-scale bootleg miners, the old man explained. “A few at most, and they only dig what they can carry out on their backs. They find unused pits and fissures and dig them further.”

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He paused, then added with a wry smile, “Mining for us is a matter of life and death, so we’re always keeping an eye out. Security on the mountain used to be a lot more lax. Back when mining was going full tilt, the bootleggers were a pinprick on this big mountain. As a result, small-time operators showed up on a regular basic looking for old stones and new veins. There was no way to tell the shadier characters from the rest. Moreover, they all knew the lay of the land. There was always going to be somebody sneaking onto the mountain to pilfer claims for small stones. Refugees living hand to mouth, for example. As long as even junk stones could bring in a little money, the claim jumpers and poachers were going to show up. Though without a license, they could only sell those stones on the black market.”

Miners needed a license to work a claim, which had to be produced when the stones went to market.

“But, you know, in every era, there are always deals going on under the table. You hear plenty of talk about merchants willing to trade in unlicensed stones.”

“Does anyone around here even have a license?”

“You mean us? Of course, we got licenses. Though the licenses are for Kantaku.” He grinned. “The stones we extract here get stamped as coming from Kantaku.”

As a matter of fact, the Kantaku Mountain wasn’t producing good stones. But according to the paperwork, stones extracted on Kan’you Mountain were being credited to Kantaku.

“Yeah, it’s a pain. But let’s keep that between us, okay? Kantaku belongs to Kohaku, the shire castle town. Kohaku got damaged pretty bad during the troubles with the land gangs. It needs that money coming in. What matters the most on the mountains around here are the gemstone fountains. During the troubles, some of the disreputable gangs pilfered all the stones from the fountains. Well, the fountains are still there. New stones can be cultured, but it’ll be years before they’re worth selling. In the meantime, we’ve got to dig in the mines to make a living.”

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“In other words, the Kohaku government is going along with the charade.”

The old man answered with a shrug. “That’s why we don’t have to rely on the black market. But if you’re an unlicensed stone hunter and you want to turn those stones into cash, you got to have a trader willing to do business. They are out there. And that’s why we have the poachers to meet that demand.”

Except that during the height of the troubles, the black market shut down when the land gangs were ordered to blockade the mountain. The barricades went up at Ryuukei to the west and Sokou to the east and nobody was allowed inside. Especially around the time that news about Gyousou ceased, the land gangs as well were discreetly driven back.

“And so Kan’you Mountain was left uninhabited.”

“Though that was only temporary. It was a while until business picked up where it left off. Until then, there were people getting in. I don’t know exactly when the land gangs were pulled back and regular traffic to and from the mountain went back to normal, but I’m sure more than a few could have snuck in and dug for stones.”

He nodded as if confirming for himself what he had just said.

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“Fact is, there were people on the mountain. The smell of the mines was in the air. There’s your proof. Couldn’t say whether it was folks from around here looking for a little something to tide them over or refugees who’d run short on their rations. Somebody was on the mountain digging for stones.”

Taken aback, Risai glanced at Kyoshi and Houto. The two of them nodded as well.

Somewhere far off the beaten path on Kan’you Mountain, Gyousou parted with his sash. Refugees went stone hunting in that same area. Could they have come to Gyousou’s rescue? Had they found Gyousou there, suffering serious wounds and unable to move? How likely was it that they had rescued him?

They spent the whole of the next day searching the interior, on the lookout for any mines the bootleggers might have excavated. But they turned up no new important clues. They came away with no idea where or under what conditions the assault took place.

In the end, Kan’you Mountain turned out to be a dead end. The next morning, they abandoned the search and left the mountain.

The cold gusts of wind were speckled with flecks of white. Snow began to fall.

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