Hills of Silver Ruins

Chapter 28

12-3 Once again, the expedition ended with no useful new clues.

The five of them returned from Hakurou in the face of a biting cold wind that did nothing to raise their spirits. Along the way, they kept their eyes peeled for Fu Hoyou branch stores and their ears open for rumors about activities related to the Fu clan, but came up empty there too.

The fatigue accumulated over a fruitless journey was hard to shed. The cold wind soaked into the bones.

p. 356

Kan’you Mountain, Ginsen and its ruined neighboring villages, and now Hakurou. Their searches had yielded nothing to date. What they grasped instead was how miserable conditions were in Tai—

The rack and ruin that created the land gangs, and the sad state of affairs that allowed the land gangs to keep holding territory. The tough lives that even the land gangs led. The refugees that resorted to stone hunting, knowing the dangers, and when they at last made a valuable find, were robbed and killed as a reward for their efforts.

That was the present-day reality of Tai—a family with no place to run who hid out in an abandoned village and starved to death—all the illegal businesses that profited off refugees in such desperate straits.

The devastation was there to see in all the towns they passed on their journeys. Remnants of the ravages of war, refugees camped out wherever they could find shelter, snow covering fallow land dotted with graves. Lawlessness ran rampant and the corruption left its mark on the people. There were no signs of this pervasive crookedness ever being corrected.

A righteous emperor did not reign.

Nevertheless, however grueling, life went on. The people safeguarded their daily lives with all their hearts and souls as the dark shadows mercilessly closed in on them from all sides.

Risai returned to Rin’u with such thoughts on her mind. She went to see Hien for the first time in a long time and lavished attention on her before returning to the house.

They had a visitor.

“There’s something that’s been bothering me,” said the old man. Their visitor was the shin’nou, Shuukou.

p. 357

“Something’s been bothering you?” Risai asked in turn.

Just then, the back door opened and a voice full of good cheer called out, “Shuukou, isn’t it? It’s been a while.”

“Seishi-dono,” Shuukou said, a smile rising to his old and worn face. “How are you doing?”

“I’m doing fine, in no small part thanks to you. More importantly, you look in good health too.”

Shuukou laughed and nodded. And then took note of the curious looks directed at him. “Seishi-dono got here just in time. Do you remember, a while back, talking about this town where something seemed a bit off?”

“A town?” Seishi furrowed his brows and stared off into space, searching his memories.

“A small town not far from Kohaku. Rouan.”

Seishi frowned and drew his brows all the more. Finally, he made the connection and raised his voice. “That town with quite a few wounded people.”

Shuukou responded with a big bob of his head.

“Wounded?” the rest of them murmured.

“Southeast of Kan’you Mountain, heading into the hills from Sokou brings you to the shire castle town of Kohaku. The troubles in Bun Province started there six years ago.”

“The land gangs occupied Kohaku. That was the spark that started the whole conflagration.”

p. 358

“That it was,” Seishi agreed. “The land gangs running the Koumon gemstone mine in the mountains near Kohaku started the troubles, that began in earnest when they spilled into Kohaku and ended up occupying the shire castle. The Koumon land gangs had long been a rude and rowdy bunch, and the surrounding towns, including Kohaku, suffered because of the violence. Level land is in short supply, with few prospects of large enough lots to farm. The area was never wealthy to begin with. Even with the gemstone mines, the only benefit was that the land gangs holed up there and left them alone. But when they inevitably ran short on food, they’d force their way into the villages and shake them down for supplies while paying next to nothing.”

Shuukou added, “That’s how Kohaku got drawn into the mayhem. All the collateral damage to start with, and after that, the purges laid waste to the region. Some towns and villages were wiped out. Others ceased to function properly after being overwhelmed by refugees. Among them, Rouan managed to escape with relatively little damage.”

“It’s in the middle of the mountains, on a high plateau not far from Kohaku. They’ve terraced narrow strips of farmland one atop each other into the rocky mountainside.”

“What about this village?” Risai asked.

p. 359

“It’s always been a poor village perched on the top of the mountain. Even the Koumon land gangs hardly bothered raiding the village. You could call its location advantageous due to the sheer difficulty getting there. But because of that, the chaos that came later mostly passed it by. That’s the kind of place it is. The damage inflicted on the surrounding villages resulted in large numbers of refugees, but again, probably because of its location, they avoided getting overwhelmed. That’s not to say there are none at all. I heard a small number of refugees made their way to the village and weren’t turned away. There never were many landowners there, and with the decrease in population in the wake of the chaos in Bun Province, they welcomed more able workers.”

“Were there any wounded among the refugees?”

“Hold on,” Shuukou said, raising his hand. “A little patience. I’m getting to that. The refugees and the residents have come to reasonable accommodations. Though the damage from the fighting was light, it’s been a poor village going way back and hard to get to. That hasn’t changed. Perhaps because many of the refugees there were burned out of their homes, I saw a small increase in the need for salves and ointments and convalescent medicines from before. I understood the circumstances and visited whenever I could. Enough time has passed since then that the demand is no longer there. Now they ask for the same medicines for fevers and stomach aches as any other village. Household medicines. These days, I can pretty much put together the order ahead of time. Given a certain population, they will need this much of this and that much of that. It comes down to simple rules of thumb. You stick at this job long enough and a shin’nou gets good at sizing up the situation, the same way the route sticks in your mind after you’ve walked it for a while. You’ve got to know what is and isn’t necessary when you end up with that patient with a unique illness.”

p. 360

Risai nodded and silently urged him to continue.

“Except in Rouan, the numbers never added up. For a village of that size, the number of people you saw around and about didn’t match the amount of medicine I was delivering. One way or another, more people were living there than were on the books. That alone wasn’t unusual. Or rather, it’s the kind of thing you see more or less everywhere in Bun Province. If you take in refugees, the population of the place is going to grow. But maybe you make sure that information doesn’t reach the tax collectors. Or businesses take root that nobody talks about in public. Villages that are home to members of the land gangs and their ilk, villages where unregistered drifters and refugees gather to trade and barter off the books—those are the kind of places we’re talking about.”

“This turning into a most interesting tale.”

“These are the places where the size of the village and the amount of medicine you’re bringing in don’t add up on paper, where what you’re seeing with your own two eyes isn’t what they’re saying. You’ve got people living there who aren’t on the census records. Hence the mismatch.”

“What about when the head count is smaller than you expect?”

“Then we’re probably talking about certain individuals with a price on their heads, righteous vigilantes or plain old rebels who can’t afford to show their faces in public. Especially if the residents aren’t supposed to know they exist, then even if the population of the village matches up with what your eyes can see, you’re going to end up selling more medicine that the numbers would suggest. Rouan is that kind of village.”

p. 361

“Plain old rebels—”

“Hardly out of the ordinary in Bun Province. In particular, there are places around Kohaku that helped soldiers of the Imperial Army go underground after the troubles in Bun Province. Back when this all began, it was the Imperial Army that rescued Kohaku from the land gangs, so they were already well disposed toward them. Quite a few felt a deep debt of gratitude especially to the Palace Guard of the Center.”

“The Palace of the Center—that was Eishou’s army.”

Shuukou nodded. “They were the first to arrive on the scene and lend a helping hand. Word got around how the Army of the Center did right by them. Because of that, many villages took in the soldiers. But as a result, those villages got caught up the purges. For the good of the villages, those soldiers often fled on their own. But the purges never reached Rouan. They might still be hiding people there, though as far as I know, nothing has emerged that could confirm those suppositions.”

“Soldiers of the Imperial Army?”

“I don’t know. Shin’nou like me who visit the village on a regular basis get requests for this or that the next time we’re in town. Sometimes the list includes whetstones and stone oil, items you’d associate with the care and maintenance of weapons. I couldn’t say whether we’re talking about soldiers or something else, but I do think there’s a military connection there. Not many, I don’t think. Even if there were enough to qualify as many, we’re talking a dozen or so, not hundreds.”

p. 362

Picking up where Shuukou left off, Seishi added, “Hearing these stories, and hoping I might run across surviving elements of the Imperial Army, I went with him on several occasions and looked around the town. Maybe I’d recognize somebody there or someone there lying low would notice me. But I didn’t get any reactions at all, even when broaching the subject as indirectly as possible.”

“Unfortunately,” Shuukou said with an equivocal smile. “If people are hiding in the village, they’re not likely to be soldiers. Probably residents of other villages that were targets of the purges. Fearing a renewal of the purges, they stay out of the public eye. The villagers themselves hide them out of good will and their own self-interest. I was pretty sure that was the case in Rouan too. Except there is that unusual demand for salves and ointments in Rouan. Perhaps because people there are recuperating from serious wounds.”

“Serious wounds—” Risai murmured, leaning forward.

“Based on the use and consumption of the medicines, I imagine a person or persons there must have been gravely injured. When I asked around, the villagers insisted that was no one like that there, which only leads me to believe they are hiding someone who was badly injured. And while the exact amounts have gone up and down, the demand has continued for these past six years. That person has not fully recovered. However—”

p. 363

Shuukou lowered his voice. “The last time I visited Rouan, the volume of salves and ointments was much less. The demand for convalescent and nutritional medicines were down as well. It appears they don’t need them anymore. And not only that. When I ventured into a nearby neighborhood, I was asked if I could procure a half dozen swords or spears.”

“Swords or spears—”

Risai’s expression stiffened and Kyoshi felt his heart skip a beat. A person with serious wounds, who had required medical treatment over a long period of time, and then didn’t anymore. And now, instead of medicine, they wanted weapons.

“Let’s check it out.”

“Not so fast,” Seishi said with a restraining gesture. “The villagers are already a wary bunch, and took all kinds of precautions hiding this individual. Sticking our noses in without cause could be dangerous. They could just as easily point us in the wrong direction. Let’s have Shuukou deliver the swords. I’ll accompany him. I’ve already visited on several occasions as Shuukou’s apprentice.”

“We would greatly appreciate it,” Risai said with a bow. She turned to Shuukou. “Any preferences about the swords and spears?”

“As long it cuts well. If you can’t get your hands on winter weapons, then anything with a good edge will do. That’s what they told me. As far as the costs are concerned, money is no object.”

p. 364

All the more suspicious, Kyoshi thought, clenching his fists. A poor village on the frontier shouldn’t have access to financial resources like that. And no villager needed winter weapons for ordinary self-defense. Whatever or whomever they were hiding, they probably weren’t members of the land gangs or vigilantes. They had to be soldiers. Based on previous discussions, possibly a remnant of the Imperial Army.

Badly wounded six years before and on the mend ever since.

Searching his thoughts for an answer, he let his gaze wander. His eyes met Houto’s. As if sharing the same thoughts, Houto nodded.

The possibility was definitely there.

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