Hills of Silver Ruins

Chapter 18

10-3 Kiitsu called out, “Are you all right?”

“Nothing to worry about,” Risai answered.

Ki’itsu smiled in relief. “Were they from Ginsen?”

“So it seems.” Risai said, and described the events that occurred in their absence.

“Do you think they were really protecting their surplus goods?” Houto asked as their horses wound down the trail single file.

“I have to wonder. We could find out for certain if we went back to Ginsen and investigated a bit more. But the answer to that question wouldn’t do us much good in the long run.”

“Are they perhaps hiding His Highness?”

“I don’t think so,” Risai said with a sigh. “To start with, he wouldn’t be so ham-handed about concealing his presence.”

“Indeed.”

The sun set over the mountain trail. The city gates would already be closed by now. They were unlikely to be let in if they returned to Nanto, so they stopped instead at the second village they’d visited, the burned-out ruins, and set up camp.

p. 246

“I’ll look for firewood,” Houto said.

Kyoshi raised his hand. “Hey, there’s a light.”

They exchanged wary looks. None of them believed the law and order in the area was as out of control as the superintendent in Ginsen said. At the same time, this was not the time or the place to let down their guard.

Keeping their eyes peeled, their urged their horses forward and soon came across a campfire ringed by three men. The men looked back at them with equally suspicious expressions on their faces.

“You travelers?” one of them called out, a tall and lanky man.

“That’s right,” Ki’itsu replied, speaking first as he had before.

“Priests, are you? What are you doing way out here at this time of night?”

They didn’t strike Risai as particularly distrusting. The lanky older man, a shorter and younger man, and one other sat nonchalantly around the fire, though far enough away that the flames didn’t illuminate their features. That was a small cause for concern.

Ki’itsu explained they were making the rounds of the small villages in the area and checking to see how well they were preparing for winter.

p. 247

“We ended up taking in one town too many, and before we knew it, we’d lost track of the time.”

“Good of you to go the extra mile. You’re welcome to share our fire. It’s going to be a cold night.”

“Thank you.”

They tossed another log onto the fire. The flames flared up, casting Ki’itsu’s features into greater contrast.

“Hoh, it’s Ki’itsu-sama from Fukyuu Temple,” the older man said, the relief clear in his voice. “It’s been a while.”

Ki’itsu responded with a similarly relaxed smile. “Oh, is that you, Shuukou?” He waved over Risai and the others. “He’s a shin’nou from Rin’u. This is Shuukou and Yotaku, his apprentice. Good people.”

Now that he mentioned it, two packs similar to the ones Houto and Risai were carrying sat on the ground not far from the fire.

“Are you working the circuit around here too?” Houto asked in a bright voice.

“Sure,” Shuukou answered. “You have to visit the villages before winter.”

Houto scratched his head and said with an apologetic shrug, “Sorry about that. I did some business in medicines when we passed through Ginsen.”

Shuukou gave Houto an examining look. “You’re a shin’nou?”

p. 248

“Tanshou is my guild boss and warehouse manager,” Houto said in a softer voice.

The expressions on the faces of the shin’nou and his apprentice abruptly stiffened. “Well, you have certainly gone out of your way, coming such a long distance.”

Tanshou being his guild boss meant that Houto handled shipments for Zui’un Temple. Perhaps making that connection, they both gave Houto a respectful bow.

“And this is?” Houto shifted his attention to the third man standing a little way off.

“He is traveling with us.”

“Together?”

“The way the region has grown unsettled of late, he was looking for someone to keep company with.”

The man acknowledged them with a nod of his head. Averting his eyes, he sat under a nearby tree.

“Please don’t take it personally. He’s not the sociable type,” Shuukou said. “So, you stopped at Ginsen? How did that work out?”

“I moved a fair amount of product. Ginsen seems a prosperous village.”

“Yes, you do come away with that impression.”

“You were headed there next, weren’t you? My apologies. Let’s swap inventory. You can have the cash margins on the sales.”

p. 249

“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it,” Shuukou protested, raising his hands.

Houto insisted. “This is your territory, after all.” He took out his traveling purse. They exchanged money and the stocks of medicines Houto had sold. “I hope that that is enough.”

“Of course! Seeing as you are accompanying Ki’itsu-sama, you wouldn’t have come here only to conduct business.”

Ki’itsu added hurriedly, “We didn’t know you were headed our way. We just wanted to make sure they didn’t run short of supplies.”

“Ah, so that’s how it happened.”

“The villagers in Ginsen said there was a good amount of civil unrest in the area. Are things that unsettled around here?”

Shuukou shook his head. “I don’t think so. Granted, you’ll find your fair share of shady characters and bad neighborhoods in Nanto. As they say, where travelers flock together, so do the vultures. But hardly anyone walks the roads in these parts, you see.”

p. 250

An excuse cooked up by the folks in Ginsen, Risai thought to herself. She glanced at the man sitting in the shadows of the tree.

“Well, enough of that. Gather around the fire. The horses must need water. Yotaku—”

Shuukou turned to the younger man. With a bob of his head, he took hold of the reins of one of the horses and led it down the slope. Yotaku watered the horses one by one. Alongside him, Shuukou gathered more firewood. He put on a kettle, humming to himself as he made tea.

“All we’ve got are our leftovers,” Shuukou apologized as he cut the manjuu and steamed chicken cutlets into portions.

“That tune takes me back,” Risai said.

Shuukou cocked his head to the side with a quizzical expression.

“The song you’re humming. Brave knights sally forth to slay and be slain, leaving behind their riderless mounts, that wander about loudly neighing and braying.

“Ah, yes, that.” Shuukou said with a nod at the quiet man beneath the tree, “He sings it often. The lyrics aren’t exactly music to the ears, though.”

“Huh.” Risai stole another look at the man. “South of the Walls We Fought,” was the name of the song, a favorite among soldiers.

She got to her feet and walked over to him. Shuukou called for her to come back. She ignored him and knelt down close enough that he could hear her without raising her voice.

“I think you used to be a soldier.”

p. 251

He glanced at her out of the corner of his eyes before turning away again.

“Who did you serve under?”

He didn’t answer and went to stand. Risai took hold of his arm.

“You were a soldier. In what army?”

Shuukou shouted at her to leave him alone. The man got to his feet, pulling Risai up with him. He turned. For a moment they stood face to face. She guessed he was in his late twenties. Still young, still showing the physique of a military man. But before she could take that all in, he reacted first. Eyes wide, he stared at her, mouth open, unable to find the words. And finally—

“I don’t believe it. General Ryuu—” he exclaimed in a hoarse whisper.

She didn’t recognize his face at first, though something about him struck a chord deep within her memories.

“General Ryuu? Risai-sama?” He slumped to his knees and bowed his head almost to the ground. “You’re alive!” he exclaimed in a quavering voice. “I am Seishi. I was in the Zui Provincial Guard of the Right.”

“Oh, you served under Gashin. Now I remember. You are the Seishi I met at Mount Hou.”

p. 252

Risai had once traveled to Mount Hou. There she met Gyousou along with Ganchou and Gashin, members of his retinue. Seishi was one of Gashin’s staff officers. They weren’t traveling together so didn’t meet that often. But now that she thought about it, his was a familiar face.

Seishi looked up at her and nodded vigorously. “I thought I recognized your voice. What happened to your arm?”

“Oh, that.” Risai said with a wry smile, “I blundered into a bad situation.”

A puzzled Shuukou broke into their conversation. “Um, an acquaintance of yours?”

“Ah,” said Risai.

“She commanded the Zui Provincial Guard of the Center.”

Shuukou stared at Risai in surprise. “You don’t say. Anyway, come to the fire, you two. It’s cold out here.”

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