now was falling when Kyoshi, Risai, and Houto left Kan’you Mountain. It hadn’t let up when they returned to Rin’u five days later. It wasn’t a heavy snowfall and little accumulated during the day. But in the morning, a blanket of white covered the countryside. The clouds hanging over the foothills broke apart and the sun shone through around the time Rin’u came into sight at the end of the road.
It was a melancholy journey. Their explorations of the mines on Kan’you Mountain hadn’t produced a single useful clue. They paid particular attention to mine shafts that showed signs of being worked when the mountain was supposedly closed, searching all the way to the mine faces. But the numerous side tunnels, many of them running into dead ends caused by cave-ins, made it impossible to conclude the search in a satisfactory manner, especially when there was no way to determine when the cave-ins occurred.
However, considering conditions at the time, descending Kan’you Mountain alone, evading the Imperial Army, and escaping territory controlled by hostile forces would have been difficult in the extreme. Perhaps there had been refugees who’d stepped in to help. They talked to miners who worked on Kan’you Mountain but hadn’t learned anything more.
No one doubted that refugees and drifters and bootleggers down on their luck snuck onto the mountain to work the mines, except mostly after Asen conducted the sweeping purge. The ongoing operations before that were limited in scope and duration. The Provincial Guard made a halfhearted attempt to guard access to the mountain, demonstrating little desire to stand their ground when attacked by the land gangs.
What it came down to was, the only time the mountain was truly devoid of people was during the troubles.
The old man they’d talked to said sneaking onto the mountain during the troubles would have been difficult. But if there were refugees up there, they could have come to Gyousou’s aid. In that case, they would still have to carry a badly wounded man off Kan’you Mountain and slip through the cordons set up by the Imperial Army—an even more difficult task.
They were confident that Gyousou had been attacked on Kan’you Mountain. Otherwise, Asen would not have gone to such efforts to clear the place of witnesses. Through a series of calculated steps, Gyousou was lured away from the column of soldiers he was leading. He was accompanied by a security detail, but the “Red Amor,” as they were known, had been recruited to assassinate him in the first place.
The assassins accompanied Gyousou up the mountain, and when all was done, returned to camp. As it turned out, they didn’t actually come back in the same fashion. It was more likely they hid their uniforms and mingled with the regular troops.
Because Gyousou wasn’t with them when they came down from the mountain, Kyoshi believed he’d been left behind at the scene of the attack. Given the condition of his sash, cut from behind, he surely suffered a deep wound. They wouldn’t have left him there if he still had life in him. The assassins must have believed they’d dealt a fatal blow.
The problem was what became of Gyousou after that, the place he chose to disappear.
“The wound must have been so grievous that his attackers were confident in leaving him for dead. In that case, I don’t think he could have fled Kan’you Mountain right away,” Kyoshi concluded, and he might not have been able to move at all.
Houto nodded. “Likely rendered unconscious. They wouldn’t have settled for seeing him lying there. They would have checked for signs of life and delivered a coup de grâce to be sure. He must have been close enough to dead they couldn’t tell the difference.”
“Something like that,” Risai said.
“In that condition, he hardly could have fled the mountain under his own power.”
Definitely not, Kyoshi thought to himself.
Risai agreed with that assessment as well. “I think Gyousou-sama carried a talisman to protect himself. On the verge of death, it breathed life into him and accelerated the healing process. But even with the power of such a talisman at his disposal, his recuperation would have taken time, forcing him to remain there for a period of time. He came down the mountain when he was able to move again.”
If Gyousou had indeed escaped Kan’you Mountain under his own power, those were the conditions he would have had to deal with.
“In that case, wouldn’t he have returned to camp straightaway?” Houto asked.
Risai shook her head. “Not necessarily. Gyousou-sama was attacked by a security detail attached to Asen’s army. He would have fully understood by then that they were the enemy. Eishou and Sougen were still in the dark about what was going on. In that situation, any contact with the army could have proved dangerous in the extreme.”
“Makes sense,” Kyoshi muttered. “The enemy thankfully left him for dead. Any error alerting his allies to that fact would inform his enemies as well. He’d end up jumping out of the frying pan and right back into the fire.”
What would I do in such circumstances? Kyoshi turned the question over in his mind. Even with such a talisman, he would have suffered grave wounds. If he could move, he’d be far from fighting strength, with every ability compromised. Supposing he struggled down the mountain and back to camp, any accidental contact with Asen’s army could end his life right there and then.
On the other hand, slipping through the lines to make contact with his personal retainers only made sense if he had the physical strength to do so, which was doubtful. The smart strategy would be to lie low, stay out of sight, and not reach out to his retainers until he’d sufficiently healed.
When Kyoshi voiced these thoughts aloud, Houto said, “Sounds right to me. Moreover, he’d have to find a hiding place quickly in case his attackers returned, don’t you think?”
Kyoshi thought so too. When the White Pheasant did not fall from its perch, the emperor’s assailants would realize they’d missed their mark. Despite the delays communicating between Bun Province and Kouki, using a blue bird, the fastest form of long-distance communication, it would take only a day or two to learn the truth. And when they did, the assassins would return to finish the job while the emperor was yet in a badly wounded state.
“If rendered unconscious, we don’t know how long that would have lasted. No matter what, if it were me, getting away from the mountain would be my first priority.”
With enemy agents infiltrating the regular army, running away from the camp was the sanest strategy. Attracting any kind of attention brought with it the likelihood of getting hauled back to the army. That meant getting spotted by strangers could prove just as fatal.
“So, the mountains?” Houto said.
Kyoshi came to the same conclusion. The emperor must have left Kan’you Mountain and hid out in the foothills while waiting for his wounds to heal.
“And then?” Houto continued, with a tilt of his head that suggested he was less than satisfied with that explanation. “While waiting for his wounds to heal, he would need food and water and medicine. Suppose he could last for two or three days using the talisman alone. Wounds that healed that fast wouldn’t convince his assailants he was dead. They’d have to appear fatal, and injuries that severe would take a long time to heal. Don’t you find it hard to believe that he could hide out in the mountains alone for that long?”
Risai said, “It’s like Houto says. I can’t imagine Gyousou-sama escaping all by himself. It makes more sense that some of the refugees who snuck onto Kan’you Mountain came to his aide.”
“It does,” Kyoshi quietly agreed.
Risai pointed out that they hadn’t discovered any evidence on Kan’you Mountain. Given that the trail Gyousou left behind was impossible to track at this late date, wouldn’t it make more sense to search instead for whoever might have assisted him?
Houto said, “In which case, the odds are high His Highness found shelter in a village somewhere in the vicinity of Kan’you Mountain.”
Risai nodded. A village outside the perimeter maintained by the land gangs yet within a stone’s throw of Kan’you Mountain. The villages that met those criteria were subsequently caught up in Asen’s purge and their residents scattered. Among them, there must be people who cared for a wounded general, people who had hidden something of great value at great cost and now carried that secret with them.
But what was the best way to find these refugees or drifters who had already moved on? That question on their minds, they returned to Rin’u. Ki’itsu was waiting for them. As it turned out, he’d come to the gates every evening at closing time to check for signs of their return.
“Kenchuu informed me you’d safely made it as far as Kan’you Mountain.”
That was indeed good news, but when he inquired about what they found there, Risai had to let him know they hadn’t turned up any clues. Their thinking now was that local inhabitants who were living close to the mountain at the time sheltered the emperor and then took him with them when they fled the area.
Had Ki’itsu perhaps caught wind of any rumors to that effect?
Ki’itsu shook his head. But two days later, he brought two men to see them. They were refugees who had sought shelter at Fukyuu Temple.
“These men had something interesting to say on the subject that I thought you might want to hear.” At his urging, the two scrawny men hesitantly stepped forward. Ki’itsu said, “Go ahead. Tell them what you saw.”
“Those soldiers, you mean?”
The other man nodded his head, albeit with obvious reluctance. He cast Risai and the others a grim look from upturned eyes. He clearly had second thoughts about the wisdom of cooperating with these strangers.
“You are sure they were soldiers?” Risai asked.
“More the way they carried themselves, I guess. They weren’t wearing armor or riding horses or kijuu. One of them looked like he’d been on the losing end of a bad fight. Maybe ten others, none of them shabbily dressed. A land gang, we thought, so we ducked out of sight and watched from a safe distance. They maintained a tight formation, you know? And they were all armed, to boot. Something like that, right?”
He turned to his companion for agreement, got a nod for an answer. “As far as that goes, they were dead on their feet, dragging themselves into the mountains.”
“Which way were they headed?”
“We spotted them east of Sokou. They were climbing the north slope headed east. We were hiding in the bushes and couldn’t tell you much more than that.”
“Was the man with them gravely wounded?”
He again turned to his companion, who again nodded. “He was walking on his own, after all.”
“Like I said, dragging his feet, borrowing a shoulder to lean on, but making his own way. If he lost his footing, the guys around him held him up.”
If the individual in question was moving under his own power, then he couldn’t be Gyousou, could it?
“Can you remember when this occurred?”
“Well—” Both men shrugged.
They couldn’t say for certain, but the time period they both agreed on was two months or so after Gyousou disappeared. In which case, it was possible he had built up enough strength by then.
“Thank you. Was there anything else that caught your eye?”
“Nothing comes to mind.”
His silent partner again nodded without a word.
“We appreciate you taking the time to see us,” Ki’itsu said graciously, followed by a gesture that indicated they were free to leave. The two were on their way out when the silent man spun around.
“You know, I saw this trunk.”
“It was outside Nanto. Late at night. This group making their way along the mountain trail there, real wary of their surroundings, you know? They were pulling a cart with a big trunk on the back.”
“Hey, no kidding?” exclaimed his companion.
The man nodded. That was the conclusion he came to from the way they were grunting and groaning and urging each other on. He’d been asked to run an errand to Nanto east of Rin’u but arrived after the gates closed and ended up camping out until morning. He’d nodded off when a noise woke him up. In the dead of night, he could make out several people trudging down the trail south of Nanto.
“They were totally on their guard, you know? And pulling that cart. Refugees, probably. They were headed southeast. Maybe that’s why it left an impression.”
With that, he turned on his heels. When Risai went to call him back, he was already gone.
“At the time, that wouldn’t have been unusual,” Ki’itsu observed. “Many refugees were slipping away from Kan’you Mountain with whatever they could carry. But normally they headed west. Whatever direction they went, it had to be convenient. Hakurou, for example, where they might be able to get work. Going east from Rin’u and then continuing onto the southeast makes no sense.”
The Totei Highway ran east of Rin’u toward Jou Province. Although there were no mountains on the scale of the You Range north or south of the highway, it was surrounded by precarious cliffs and ridges. Ki’itsu said small villages could be found in the mountain valleys, though moving further to the southeast, the terrain was practically uninhabited. The mountains were steep and no roads crossed them. In short, following any road to the southeast ended in a few small villages and then wilderness.
“One of those, perhaps?” Risai suggested, but Ki’itsu had no idea one way or the other.
“Let’s check it out,” she said, looking up at the snow-covered peaks that formed a massive line from Kan’you Mountain to the south. “We’re never going to know for certain unless we see for ourselves.”