12-6 Three days before.
With the crates and travel packs prepared by Houto loaded onto their horses, Seishi and Shuukou left Rin’u and took the highway due north. Shortly before arriving at Sokou, they turned off the highway and climbed a side road into the foothills. Surmounting the first slope brought them to Kohaku. A generous expanse of farmland spread out around Kohaku, encircled by the forested hills.
They took a short break there, then pushed deeper into the mountains.
Rouan was located on a desolate mountaintop. Seishi had traveled there on several occasions. Shuukou was riding a borrowed horse. Horseback riding wasn’t exactly his forte. On top of that, they were making their way through a deep snowpack. Shuukou couldn’t pick up the pace lest he get thrown from the saddle.
Seishi bridled his patience. They made their way up the mountain paths as quickly as they could manage.
The trees thinned out as they climbed higher, replaced by rocky crags and shrubs, creating a desolate landscape covered by ice and snow. At length, the bare, rock-strewn slopes rose to a solitary ridge, atop which perched an old barrier wall.
Narrow fields terraced into the steep mountainside ran right up to and along the barrier wall. The season being what it was, the fields were buried in snow. The thickets of thorn oak covering the rice paddy levees were shrouded as well by blankets of white, adding the finishing touches to the bleak and barren scene. A freezing wind swept across the slopes.
Seishi and Shuukou entered the village just before the gates closed. Snow covered the main avenue. Black paving stones were only barely visible down the center of the avenue and along the paths leading to each dwelling. The village was on the small side, maybe home to twenty-five households.
These days in Bun Province, small villages with dwindling populations had become more common. Except compared to others village of this size, there seemed to be more people up and about than expected. That was at least partly due to this being the off-season for farmers. As a rule, the population in the villages increased during the winters.
Soon after entering the village, Shuukou recognized a villager at one of the gathering spots inside the gate and called out to him.
“Is that you, Shuukou? What’s going on? Weren’t you here recently?”
The middle-aged man wore a puzzled expression on his face. By and large, the residents of Rouan didn’t show outsiders their friendly side. They had already accepted more than their fair share, so the sentiment went, and enough was enough. Any traveler who hadn’t earned his place there was going to get a good looking over to start with and feel eyes on his back wherever he went.
“We received a unique order from Boukyuu-dono and managed to get our hands on the items. We dropped by to make the delivery.”
“Oh.” The man’s expression brightened. Seishi concluded he must have some idea what those items were. It wasn’t only the clients who knew of the request for weapons. Perhaps the entire village had an inkling about what was going on.
The man hurried toward the rishi. Seishi and Shuukou followed behind, leading their horses. The people who passed by on the street didn’t pay any extra attention to them, but they sensed themselves being watched and scrutinized from a safe distance, from inside the houses and beneath the eaves of shops along the way.
Rouan is definitely hiding something.
That impression had stuck with Seishi since the last time, not unrelated to the unusual demand for medicines. They tagged after the man to the rishi. He rushed inside. A few moments later, a much older man appeared in his stead. This was Boukyuu, the assistant village manager. The village manager of Rouan died that spring and the position hadn’t been filled. In the meantime, Boukyuu had taken over those responsibilities.
“You managed to procure them?”
“Yes, though we can’t guarantee they are exactly what you are looking for.”
“Bring them inside and we’ll see.”
Seishi and Shuukou unloaded the crates from the horses and hauled them into the rishi. A white tree occupied the center of the courtyard. A man and a woman were waiting in the room behind it, at the other end of the courtyard. Both had a military look about them, that air and demeanor unique to the professional soldier. To Seishi, they felt like brothers in arms. The feeling was apparently mutual. They gave his face a searching look, as if trying to place his background as well.
The woman asked, “Boukyuu-dono, who are these gentlemen?”
Seishi did not recognize her or the man. They must not have ever entered the circle of his friends and acquaintances, professional or otherwise.
“Shuukou-sama and his apprentice,” Boukyuu said to Shuukou. “Is that correct?”
“To be precise, not exactly my apprentice. Someone I took under my wing a while back. When it comes to navigating the rough terrain around these parts, I like to bring him along.”
“Didn’t see him the last time.”
“I’d heard it was safer south of Sokou. But on the way back, a bunch from the land gangs took off after me. Things looked dicey there for a while.”
“They took off after you?”
“Hot on my tail. Of course, I can’t say for certain I was the one they were after or even if they meant me any harm. But stuff like that gives me a bad feeling. Takes a few years off my life.”
“Seems they’re having hard time lately making ends meet. Carrying on like highwaymen is the latest gambit they’ve been up to. Fortunately, they have yet to enter the vicinity of Kohaku. Still, it’s the kind of thing that weighs on your mind.”
“Yeah, it’s a nuisance. We’re often carrying goods and money, so all the more reason to worry.”
“Knowing you’re a shin’nou, you’d think they’d keep their distance.”
“Hard to know what they’re up to,” Shuukou said in uncertain tones.
The shin’nou were a medical lifeline in remote regions. The land gangs needed medicine too. Even unreformed outlaws wouldn’t lay their hands on a shin’nou. Once the shin’nou deemed a region too dangerous to include in their sales routes, no one else would step in to fill the void.
Not only that, the shin’nou forged strong local connections and more than a few had their own security details.
There was nothing to gain by antagonizing the shin’nou. In return, the shin’nou made sure that any privileged information they learned during their sales calls did not make it back to the government authorities. Particularly dangerous criminals were an exception, of course. Otherwise, when it came to illegal and unlawful behavior, they saw no evil and heard no evil.
“Well, staying safe is all that matters in the end. How about we take a look at the merchandise?”
“Go ahead,” Shuukou said.
The man and woman opened the crates. Five swords, one of which was a requested winter weapon.
“The dealer we worked through admitted up front they were not the highest quality.”
The man and woman nodded. “The winter weapon certainly isn’t. But it definitely is a certified winter weapon. The rest are fine.”
Their judgement was sound. It wasn’t easy to tell the difference between a winter weapon and its ordinary counterparts, mostly impossible for anyone but a trained soldier. Seishi was all the more convinced they were remnants of a highly trained military organization. Like the Imperial Army or the Provincial Guard.
Perhaps remembering to keep their thoughts on the subject close to the chest, they clammed up. With a searching look at Seishi, they nonchalantly turned away.
“Any problems with the products?”
“No problems at all,” Boukyuu said and asked Shuukou about the bill. Shuukou named the price. “This way,” Boukyuu said and motioned him toward the council house.
Shuukou said to Seishi, “Wait here while I take care of business,” and left with Boukyuu, leaving Seishi behind in the room with the man and woman.
They cast the occasional glance in his direction. Finally discomfited by the silence, the man spoke up. “So, I take it you’re working as a shin’nou?”
Seishi had to smile to himself. He’d correctly read him as the kind who was quick to run out of patience in situations like this. A lower-ranked officer? In fact, the expression that rose to the woman’s face was very much that of a superior officer who wanted to tell her subordinate to keep his mouth shut.
“Not exactly. I owe Shuukou and try to help out whenever I can. That kind of thing.”
“You owe him?”
“I got badly wounded, almost killed. He came to the rescue. Ever since, I’ve leaned on him for room and board. I’m doing whatever I can to pay him back.”
“You used to be a soldier?” the woman said.
Seishi nodded. “Yeah. The same as you two.”
“We are—” the man started to say.
The woman cut him off. “Point taken. We share the same background. Do you mind if I ask what army you belonged to?”
Seishi turned to face her. “That’s the kind of information I think we should both keep to ourselves for now. I don’t need your name or your chain of command. Just the answer to one question. You don’t need more medicines, do you? Nothing more than usual?”
The woman averted her eyes. “We don’t.”
“I’d like to think that’s because everybody got better. The last time I was here with Shuukou, I came away with the feeling that someone in the village was suffering from grave injuries. A person who was nowhere to be seen, that everyone in the village insisted did not exist.”
The woman flashed a wry smile and shook her head. “Looks like you noticed long before now.”
“Not so much noticed. More something I sensed. So, did this individual recover?”
The woman answered with a pained look. “No. He died.”
Seishi felt like he’d been punched in the head. “What sort of person was he? Can you tell me anything about him?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“He might have been an acquaintance.”
The man and woman exchanged glances.
“There’s a person we’ve been trying to track down for a long time now. It might be him. Can you tell me anything more?”
The woman appeared to come to a decision and nodded. She directed her attention to a corner of the room. “His effects are in there.”
A small stand stood in the corner. A wooden box sat on the stand covered by a cloth. Incense and a sprig of evergreen had been placed in front of the box.
With a look, the woman urged Seishi to approach the stand. He courteously removed the cloth and opened the lid. Inside, wrapped in another cloth, were a broken short sword, a fragment of armor, and a cracked jade pendant.
Staring at the items, quite unconsciously, Seishi’s legs began to shake. He caught his breath. Seishi didn’t know everything there was to know about Gyousou. But Gyousou hadn’t spent his entire life above the clouds. For a period of time, Seishi served alongside him. Seishi was one of Gashin’s officers when they traveled with Gyousou to Mount Hou on the Shouzan.
To be precise, Gyousou was accompanied by Gashin and Ganchou. Seishi was one of Gashin’s men. During the journey across the Yellow Sea, they all ate and slept around the same campfire. Though they were worlds apart in terms of rank and status, and Seishi’s relationship to Gyousou was solely the product of his connection to Gashin, during that time, they became as familiar with each other as any people will traveling together in a small group.
Gyousou became emperor and after that really did reside above the clouds. But whenever they crossed paths, Gyousou always had the time for a friendly word.
Seishi did not recognize the objects in the box, only that they carried a high value. The short sword and the pendant in particular were not the kind of items that an ordinary soldier would have in his possession. More typical of someone with much higher rank. On the other hand, though hardly luxurious, the scrap of armor was in line with that worn by the Palace Guard.
Seishi was caught between conflicting emotions, no knowing whether he should lapse into despair or continue to cling to hope.
“Did the owner of these objects initially take refuge here?”
“No,” the woman replied.
A lumberjack encountered him in a nearby mountain, where he’d collapsed and was on the verge of death. That was about a fortnight after Gyousou disappeared. Along with the injuries incurred from wandering through the wilderness were several wounds left by a sword, so severe that it was a miracle he wasn’t dead, and yet he had remained alive all that time.
“Having had barely anything to eat or drink, he was in great distress. Even after regaining consciousness, he faded in and out. It wasn’t a state of mind where he could carry on a conversation.” With evident apprehension, the woman pondered what she wanted to say next. “We’ve been hearing rumors about a group of people in the vicinity of Rin’u asking about the location of a military man.”
“I don’t know the details, other than they are looking for a wounded soldier and have proved quite dogged in tracking him down.”
Now they’re telling stories about us, Seishi thought to himself, shaking his head at the bitter irony. Risai may have overstayed her welcome in Rin’u.
“Those rumors are about you and yours, aren’t they?”
Seishi prevaricated for a moment before answering in the affirmative. “They probably are. We haven’t heard of anybody else on a similar mission. To be fair, I wouldn’t call our efforts dogged. Let’s say we are earnest in achieving our goals.”
The woman showed no inclination to reveal more about the wounded man, not to someone she shouldn’t be talking to in the first place. Seishi as well wasn’t eager to open up about his personal history or go into specifics about who they were looking for.
So the woman debated with herself about the advisability of speaking with Seishi, and Seishi wondered if she was a person he could trust when it came to his own background.
The best they could do for now was try and close the distance between them in a more roundabout manner.
“Did you recognize any of those items?” she asked.
“No,” Seishi said. “Nothing rings a bell. Though I couldn’t say for certain that they didn’t belong to my lord.” He used lord to see if it prompted a reaction. “That fragment looks like it came from armor worn by the Palace Guard. My lord had his own armor, and that definitely isn’t it.”
“His clothing was torn and half was lost, and the remaining fabric was covered with mud and blood. Still, its quality was undeniable. The armor fragment was found on that part of his clothing.”
The woman took a half-step toward him. Seishi mirrored the move.
“There is no way to tell the army or the military unit from that fragment, except that it was provisioned by the Palace Guard.”
“The short sword was tucked into a cord belt. Usually, a leather belt holds the scabbard for the long sword, along with a short sword. These days, you don’t see soldiers using a cord belt like that.”
Seishi groaned. “He had on a cord belt?”
He felt his vision growing dim. Indeed, unusual in this day and age, Gyousou still used a cord belt. When Seishi traveled with him across the Yellow Sea, he wore the usual leather belt. But upon his accession, he started using a cord belt. Seishi had seen it himself, and Gashin had mentioned it as well.
“I cannot vouch for the short sword. The long sword is another story.”
When it came to Gyousou’s preferred sword, Seishi would recognize it on sight. But the short sword was not so unique that its design had stuck with him after a look or two.
“What about the pendant? Any thoughts about that?”
It appeared to be a pearl-shaped jade gemstone. Seishi didn’t recognize it, nor could he recall if Gyousou had a habit of carrying such a pendant when going into battle. He certainly hadn’t been wearing it during their journey across the Yellow Sea. Aside from the imperial vestments he donned on formal occasions in the Imperial Palace, Seishi didn’t think Gyousou ever wore jewelry like that.
On the other hand, though he couldn’t recall the time or the place, he remembered hearing the sound made by jade pearls chiming together, a crisp, clear, ringing tone that impressed upon him the quality of the stones. Once when he turned around to see where it came from, Gyousou was standing there. Seishi couldn’t say whether the sound came from Gyousou. He wasn’t the only one there, after all.
But there was no denying the quality of the pendant, that could only belong to an individual of high status. Considering that the short sword was a well-made winter weapon, it must have undoubtedly belonged to a soldier.
“The armor fragment seems out of place with the short sword and the pendant. For one reason or another, all he had on hand was the regular armor supplied to the Palace Guard. I can’t help imaging that when he was wounded and escaped, he pulled on whatever was on hand along the way, and then had to shed that as well.”
“In other words,” the woman said, “he took the armor off a corpse.” She licked her lips, as if resolving to take yet another step closer.
“He was on the run. His enemies were hunting him down. Exhausted, he escaped into the mountains. Despite his deep wounds, he managed to stay alive, probably due to his being listed on the Registry of Wizards. Considering his condition, he otherwise never would have survived as long as he did.”
His shaking legs finally brought Seishi to his knees. He leaned against a nearby post to keep from falling over.
“What did he look like? His appearance?”
“He had white hair and crimson eyes.”
Seishi collapsed the rest of the way down the post. “That cannot be possible!”
They had come so far and gotten so close, when Seishi had known all along that someone in this village was suffering from severe wounds.
“And he was right here—”
How would he explain this to Risai? Such as short distance away, and yet he had foolishly failed to follow up, and so the opportunity slipped through their fingers. How could even find the words to report this news?
Because I did not believe His Highness still lived. He didn’t want to cause trouble and thus left those avenues unexplored. His Highness would have died not long after that. And that was the end of everything.
The failure was his alone. He had to apologize to Risai, to the people of Tai. It was only right that he should lose his head right here in this place.
The woman said, “So it was His Highness you were looking for.”
“I didn’t make it in time. I have no idea what to do next.” Seishi sprawled on the floor. How to bear such blame?
“Seishi-dono—what in the world?”
Seishi looked up at Shuukou, his hand stretched to him.
“Shuukou, kill me—”
“You have the right. Every citizen of Tai has the right to have me torn limb from limb.”
They hauled Seishi to another room in the rika and sat him down in a chair.
Boukyuu set a lantern on the table. “The blame hardly belongs to you,” he scolded. “We heard the rumors that a new emperor had arisen. The past is in the past. A new dynasty is upon us.”
Seishi couldn’t move. His whole body felt numb. In the fading twilight, the room grew dark, the still air all the heavier from the cold. In a consoling manner and without saying a word, Shuukou pulled up a chair and leaned forward on the armrests. He patted the back of Seishi’s hand as if to say, Don’t go getting ahead of yourself.
“Seishi-dono, when was the last time you were here?”
“At the end of the summer.”
“Well, then. Even if you had met him at the time, it would have changed nothing going forward.”
Seishi could not muster a reply.
“From the start, it sounds like it was a miracle he had any life left in him at all. I doubt we could have done anything for him either.”
Boukyuu made tea next to flickering lamp. “It took him some time for him to regain consciousness. And when he did, another month until he could speak legibly. When we asked what led to him collapsing in a place like that. He only said that he was being pursued by his enemies. He’d been on the run until they finally cornered him.”
He said he’d been given shelter, but he said nothing about where or by whom. The place got caught up in a raid and he stumbled down the mountain and managed to get away.
“When he gave us that account, he did not reveal who he was. We asked for his name and rank but he showed no inclination to provide answers. He said if we needed a name to address him with, then we could make one up. He obviously felt we were better off not knowing anything more about him, so we did not press him on the matter. However, going to such lengths did suggests he was a man of significant standing and status. Afterwards we naturally started to wonder if he was His Highness.”
Boukyuu set a cup of tea on the table and motioned to Seishi.
“In particular, the color of his eyes stood out.” Boukyuu said with a glance at the woman, “Seika raised the possibility. If he was indeed His Highness, then we must take all possible precautions to guard his safety. So we again raised the issue with him.”
“And did he acknowledge who he was?”
“No. He always insisted he was not. Sheltering His Highness put ourselves in harm’s way. In that light, his insistence to the contrary made sense.”
By stubbornly concealing his identity, the general clearly hoped to heal from his wounds and leave the village as soon as the danger passed. Boukyuu insisted that going to such lengths was not necessary. The village would offer him sanctuary no matter what the cost. Boukyuu’s persistence seemed to sink in, for little by little, he stopped denying the obvious.
Though not once did he respond to any mention of “His Highness.”
Likely because he was a wizard, he began to heal. He got better. With his condition improving in fits and starts, he’d pick up a wooden sword and practice swinging it. He’d hike off to do farm work. In a hurry to build up his strength, he’d drive himself to collapse.
“We pled with him to stop. He was only opening up old wounds. But he wouldn’t. He said somebody had to save the people and the only way to do that was to return to Kouki.”
When his wounds opened, he had them bound with bandages. Only then did he rest for a little while. But as soon as the wounds began to close, he’d pick up right where he left off.
“Except all along, there was no way he could have willed himself to get better.”
Boukyuu believed that his desire to recapture the throne had become his raison d’etre. It gave him something to live for and likely prolonged his life. Despite knowing he had to heal and recuperate, he couldn’t stop reaching for his sword and continuing his training.
“This last summer, he slipped deeper and deeper into sleep. At first, he only seemed only to have come down with a cold. But the condition inflamed even his viscera. There was nothing more we could do for him. None of the medicines had any effect. And still he refused to resign himself to his fate and continued to conduct his affairs from his sickbed.”
But at the end of fall, he finally reached his limits.
“Right up to the end, the future of Tai was constantly on his mind.”
On his deathbed and with his final breath, they heard him murmur, “The Taiho—at least—” before falling into an eternal sleep. Perhaps in that moment, abandoning any hope for his own life, and knowing how necessary the Taiho for the kingdom to continue, his final wish was for the Taiho’s return.
“Those were his last words. He asked us to search for the Taiho. Except he might as well have asked us to capture the clouds. We had not the slightest idea even where to begin.”
Boukyuu drew a deep breath and let it out. “We are hiding a number of soldiers in this village, like the two Seishi-dono met. During the subjugation of Bun Province, they were suspected of lending aid and comfort to the rebels and were forced to flee.”
“The Bun Provincial Guard?”
Boukyuu nodded. In some cases, they tried to help the residents of cities under attack get away. In others, in order to defend households from being slaughtered, they attacked the Imperial Army and were hunted down by them in turn.
“Those two say they want to go look for the Taiho. They don’t know where to begin, but surely won’t get anywhere holed up here in the mountains. They hope to make their way to Kouki and find more clues there. The plan is to set off with a team of only three.”
Though as for what they needed the weapons for, Boukyuu remained mum on that particular detail.
“In any case, I thought it imperative that I get this information into your hands. I prevailed on them to open the gate and returned as quickly as I could.”
Seishi’s report left Risai and Kyoshi and the rest of them speechless.
“I’ll go there and check it out for myself,” Risai said.
“And do what?” Ki’itsu pressed, in a severe tone of voice usual for him. “Questioning the villagers will avail you nothing. His Highness passed away. The dynasty of a new emperor has begun.”
“You don’t know that.”
Ki’itsu shook his head. “Hasn’t that been on our minds all along?”
At first, Kyoshi had no idea what Ki’itsu was trying to say. Risai looked at Ki’itsu with the same perplexed look on her face.
“Look, everyone, all along, surely you knew that a change of dynasties was upon us. But you are retainers of the previous emperor. You’re not about to accept Asen’s accession and will avenge yourselves.”
“Why? Can you tell me you haven’t formulated any plans to strike back at him?”
“Well, those plans—” Risai mumbled, her voice trailing off.
Finding Gyousou was their primary objective. Once they’d done that, they next had to drive Asen from the throne. It was only right that the position stolen from Gyousou should be returned to him.
“Yes, but not in the way you mean. I believe His Highness still lives.”
“Are you sure?” A weary smile rose to Ki’itsu’s face. “Asen will become the new emperor. Didn’t the Taiho already know that? But you have resolved to stick by Gyousou-sama come hell or high water, and thus you and he parted ways.”
Risai couldn’t find the words to respond.
“That is why the Taiho did not accompany you here.”
“No. That’s not the reason. He—”
Risai couldn’t go on. She didn’t have an argument that could refute what Ki’itsu was saying. Taiki left without a word of explanation. She didn’t know why, what he was thinking, or where he went.
“He will get in touch with us,” Kyoshi said back then, but they had been out of contact ever since. “Maybe he simply hasn’t found the means or the opportunity.”
Or maybe Kyoshi was only saying so to assuage her feelings.