10-4 Shuukou and Seishi told their stories while the rest of them ate a late dinner.
Seishi had commanded a battalion under General Gashin. A battalion consisted of five hundred soldiers in five companies of a hundred soldiers each. Six years before, Gashin’s army was stationed in Bun Province when he was ordered to return to Kouki with half of his troops. As there were five regiments in an army, it was impossible to divide the command structure neatly in half.
The circumstances the army found itself in also had to be taken into account, so how the troops were divided up was left to the commanding general. The orders came down with the understanding that “half” could be rounded off accordingly.
Gashin ended up leading two regiments back to Kouki. Seishi was attached to one of the three regiments that stayed behind in Bun Province. Seishi’s immediate superior was Shouhaku, a regimental commander. Risai remembered Shouhaku as well, a jovial and chivalrous man.
“Where is Shouhaku now?” she asked.
Seishi shook his head. Shouhaku’s regiment dispersed in Bun Province. Shouhaku fled together with Seishi and twenty or so others. They went into hiding in the west of Bun Province. But when Asen initiated the eradication campaign, they returned to defend Tetsui. He was killed during the conflict.
“I see. How unfortunate.”
Shouhaku was another one of Gashin’s trusted lieutenants who had roots in the region. He was talented and popular. He had belonged to the Zui Provincial Guard. Risai had gotten to know him well, and enjoyed his amiable and cheerful personality, so characteristic of Gashin’s retinue.
“A truly regrettable loss,” she said.
Seishi nodded. Of the several dozen who had joined the fight in Tetsui, he was the sole survivor.
“I was badly wounded and fell in the underbrush, unable to move. That’s how he found me.”
“That’s right,” Shuukou broke in to say.
Battalion commander was a high enough rank to be listed in Registry of Wizards, so Seishi managed to survive wounds that would have killed an ordinary soldier. It still took a good six months until he could stand on his own two feet, and another six months after that until his debilitated body regained its normal strength.
Shuukou had sheltered Seishi ever since. The dragnet for Gyousou’s retainers continued for several years, making it impossible for him to come out in the open. But more recently, under the right conditions, he’d been able to accompany Shuukou on his travels.
“I’d always hoped to meet up with my old mates who scattered to the four winds along with me.”
“You did a good job hanging in there, Seishi. Shuukou, I appreciate you stepping in when it counted. We are deeply grateful.”
“No, no,” said Shuukou, waving his hands. Having returned from watering the last horse, his young apprentice beamed at Shuukou and Seishi.
“But—” Seishi said. “Why did you return to Bun Province, Risai-sama? They say the province is at Asen’s knee. Aren’t you placing yourself in danger?”
“We are searching for Gyousou-sama.”
“Gyousou-sama.” Seishi blinked. “Gyousou-sama is—”
“He’s alive,” Risai stated. She didn’t go into greater detail. The more they knew, the more responsibility they would bear, and it wouldn’t be fair to burden them with too much information right now.
For a long moment, Seishi was at a loss for words. He stared up at the sky and took a deep breath. Then looked straight at Risai.
“I want to help in any way I can.”
“Of course. That is reassuring to hear.”
Risai questioned the three of them. After Gyousou disappeared, had they seen refugees hauling a curious looking trunk?
“Six years ago in Ginsen—” Shuukou muttered.
His apprentice chimed in. “When that happened, you mean.”
“I heard rumors about it from a yaboku hunter based in these parts,” Shuukou said by means of introduction. He lowered his voice. “Jewels.”
“And no ordinary stones. Perfectly clear and round sun jade gemstones, the size of a small baby. A pair of them.”
Risai caught her breath. Even among gemstones, sun jade commanded a high price. The value of the clear variety was inestimable.
“That big?” she muttered to herself, and then recalled the old man at Kan’you Mountain mentioning something similar.
Six years before, those rumors were quietly whispered about until everyone had heard of them.
“The gemstones were said to have been originally cultured to adorn the throne of Emperor Kyou.”
To culture a stone, a seed gem was immersed in a gemstone fountain. The longer it stayed in the fountain, the bigger it grew. The problem was, because the quality of the stone depended on the quality of the fountain, the longer a stone spent in the fountain, the greater the odds of flaws creeping in.
The clearest and highest value stones began life as tiny beads of jade. In gently rippling waters, the beads rose and fell in the pool as they grew larger. But over the months and years, the composition of the fountain changed. No matter how well and how clear it grew, a chance contamination could change the color. Once a stone turned cloudy, its value dropped precipitously.
When that happened, the only option was to extract the stone from the fountain and grind off the cloudy layer like peeling the skin off an apple. Even if it was immersed in the fountain again, it still wouldn’t grow clear. The scars—the imperceptible spots of imperfection—left behind by the polishing inevitably rose to the surface.
“But it is better if the flawed skin can be removed. Worse is failing to notice that the water is contaminated in the first place. Once a stone grows to a certain size, any imperfections rising to the surface will ruin the quality. When the flaws are deep within the stone, there is no way to grind them out. A big stone is always a big gamble.”
Every additional year of patient waiting was rewarded with a jump in value. And an equal increase in the risks.
“A perfectly clear gemstone is something of a miracle in and of itself.”
“And yet the size of a small baby.”
A cultured bead of jade would take longer than mere decades to grow that large. More likely a span of time beginning in the last dynasty.
“Moreover, a pair of them—”
“Brilliant jade of almost uniform color, perfectly clear and flawless. A true treasure, the genuine article. A pearl of great price. The miners who cultured them called them the Kouin.” The word meant “in the shade of the bamboo.”
But they lost it all. Before transporting the Kouin off the mountain, a big cave-in buried the mine.
“The location of the fountain where the stones were cultured, where they were moved to—the miners kept their secrets. A large scale cave-in occurred and both the Kouin and the miners disappeared. According to some stories, they got attacked by jealous competitors and collapsed the mine shafts themselves, consigning all their hard work to oblivion. Search teams crawled all over the mountain, convinced the treasure was buried there somewhere. But nobody ever found anything.”
And so this pair of jade stones, the Kouin, became a legend. These gems of incomparable quality slept somewhere beneath Kan’you Mountain.
“Other rumors say the legend is so much fiction and the stones never existed in the first place. Or they were caught in the cave-in and shattered to bits. All that’s left are bits and pieces. On the other hands, there are believers who insist the originals remain there unscathed. The Kouin were being made ready to present to Emperor Kyou, so they would have been securely padded and packed.”
“And that’s what they found?”
“According to other rumors, refugees working the gravel pits amidst the chaos dug them up. No one knows the truth. No one has seen the items in question. But several people have seen a group of refugees transporting a large trunk away from Kan’you Mountain, while doing their best to stay out of sight.”
“And those refugees are now in Ginsen?”
“No,” said Shuukou, lowered his voice even further. “Those refugees turned up dead a few days later. The cart was empty. The scene suggested they died violent deaths.”
“They were killed and the trunk stolen?”
“That’s what it looks like.”
“By the land gangs?”
“Yeah, about that.” Shuukou leaned forward. “At first, I thought it was the land gangs too. But afterwards, there was this town that got wealthy right out of the blue.”
“Sounds familiar,” Risai said under her breath.
Shuukou nodded. Then he shook his head. “I don’t think it was Ginsen, not the first time around. But it was a whole town, not a couple of individuals. If this really was highway robbery, the heist was pulled off by the entire community.”
“That makes more sense.”
If a couple of jade stones as big as a small baby hit the markets, the rumors would be everywhere. If carved into smaller pieces, no one would recognize it as the Kouin. Doing so would considerably diminish its value. But the Kouin was priceless to begin with. There’d be no way to buy or sell it.
“Where is this town?” Houto asked.
Shuukou pointed silently at his feet. With a gasp, the rest of them glanced around at the charred and shattered stone foundations.
“That sudden wealth pinned a target on their backs. At the time, they could have escaped to Jou Province. There’s a logging road only the locals know about that heads off in that direction. It’s for hauling out lumber so a cart could easily use the road. Except a landslide a few years back blocked the trail.”
“The plan was to climb over the landslide and leave Bun Province.”
“That’s what I gathered. The land gangs caught the blame for burning the place down, but there are rumors that say their neighbors were the ones that stabbed them in the back. The way I see it, the land gangs fanned the flames and the locals did the dirty work. That’s why nobody around here is talking. Bring up the subject with the wrong people and you’re taking your life in your hands.”
Risai nodded. “So we are back to Ginsen.”
“Well, there is one other village around here that is inexplicable doing better than the rest. It’s a good bet the two villages were in on the scheme from the start.”
Risai agreed. The way the villagers came after them with lances all but confirmed the rumors.
“There’s no way to know for certain this is about the Kouin. On the one hand, we have the famous legend of the jade gemstones slumbering beneath Kan’you Mountain. On the other, there’s nothing unusual about a rich claim disappearing beneath a cave-in. There must be lost fortunes sleeping down there that don’t qualify as legendary. They could have dug up one of those.”
The whole discussion made Risai depressed. Refugees who’d lost the place they called home went digging through the tailings of abandoned mines and discovered a hoard of valuable stones. Selling them would free them from a life of poverty. Believing that, they went to great lengths to unearth them and transport them away from the mountain.
And yet the treasure was stolen from them by a gang of criminals, along with their lives. The criminals themselves were living on borrowed time, for the violence they had employed to obtain that wealth was soon visited upon them in equal measure.
The attackers got attacked, and now afraid the stolen prize would be stolen from them in turn, they locked the gates and lived in fear of the inevitable reprisals.
Here was Tai in a nutshell, a cruel testament to how far the kingdom had fallen.