14-4 Risai harbored a hunch that Seishi appeared to share as well. While waiting for Kiitsu and the woman to get ready to return to Fukyuu Temple, a glance at Seishi told her he had the same thoughts on his mind.
“This is a good opportunity,” she said under her breath.
“That it is,” Seishi agreed.
Though Kiitsu indicated that they would be fine on their own, Risai and Seishi caught up with them at the front gate. The sun still hovered beneath the eastern horizon. The white streets were devoid of life, filled only with the freezing wind.
While Seishi lingered behind, Risai stepped forward alongside Kiitsu and the woman. “At least let me accompany you to the main road,” she said.
Kiitsu gave her a curious look and the woman looked a bit bewildered.
“Parting is such sweet sorrow,” Risai said, answering her doubts with a grin. That prompted a faint smile from the woman.
The wind kicked up a cloud of flurries. “Are you cold?” Risai asked conversationally. “How are you feeling?” Then right before they came to the intersection, she stopped in front of an empty storefront. “Well, be sure to take care of yourselves.”
This wasn’t anyplace in particular, which again prompted from Kiitsu a puzzled frown. But with a nod of his head, he urged the woman on, and they turned left onto the busier main thoroughfare. Risai watched until they were out of sight and then spun around.
As soon as she did, the man behind her averted his gaze and bent over, taking a sudden interest in the ground beneath his feet. The man’s companion strode by him, pretending he had nothing to do with any of them.
Feigning a nonchalant attitude of her own, Risai started to walk past, then stopped and grabbed him by the arm. “I have a few questions for you.”
He gaped up at her and tried to shake his arm free. The man staring down at the street flicked his gaze in their direction, and then with a disinterested look on his face, straightened and at once tried to put more distance between him and Risai. Except Seishi had already caught up and seized him from behind.
“W-what’s going on?”
“We’d like to have a little conversation with you two,” Risai said.
She hooked her arm around his shoulders, pressing the crook of her elbow against his throat, and dragged him beneath the eaves of the empty storefront. Following on her heels, Seishi kicked open the door to the gated alley and pushed his captive inside. Risai followed suit. Bringing up the rear, Kyoshi secured the gate behind them.
Seishi drew the sword and backed the two men down the alley.
Risai’s hunch had paid off. They’d been under surveillance ever since they returned from Gamon Temple. The people spying on them didn’t appear anyway related to the government and were clearly amateurs. Risai was pretty sure they’d been dispatched by Gamon Temple and had ignored them until now. But now they’d taken an interest in Kiitsu and the woman.
She spotted these two familiar faces as soon as they left the safe house. She was sure they’d settled into nearby accommodations so they could avoid the discomfort of camping out on the cold streets and instead keep a lookout from a heated room.
They’d surely seen Kiitsu and the woman arrive and probably already figured out who Kiitsu was. But the woman was a fresh face. Depending on how curious the spies were, they might want to delve into her background and identity, and might wait for her to leave and follow her. That meant her whereabouts coming to light. Even if they had no way of finding out who she was, Risai could no longer let those sleeping dogs lie.
Under the guise of seeing off Kiitsu and the woman, Risai caught the spies in the act.
As expected, the spies tailed them from the safe house. But the way they brushed past Risai made it clear they were following the woman. Aware she was being watched, Risai didn’t come armed, but Seishi brought her sword with him. Together with Kyoshi, he shadowed the spies from a safe distance. Not wanting to alarm the woman, Risai didn’t mention what she was up to. But Seishi knew exactly what she had in mind.
“Who are you working for?”
“What are you talking about?”
The two men retreated until they huddled together in a corner of the courtyard.
“We know you’ve been watching us, and we know you followed us back from Hakurou,” Risai said. “Or to be more precise, Gamon Temple.”
That provoked the wide-eyed reaction she expected.
“Gamon Temple means Hoyou is handing out the orders. What I don’t get is what you are after. Exactly why have you been spying on us?”
Their first impulse would be to deny everything, but they had a hard time coming up with a good excuse on the spur of the moment.
“At first, I thought you were looking into our backgrounds. But if that were the case, you were taking an awful long time getting the job done. You must have already confirmed our connections to Fukyuu Temple and that we are looking for someone. Why are you spending so much time paying so much attention to us?”
“If you were here to make sure we weren’t lying to Hoyou, you would have left long ago. We’ve turned a blind eye until today, but frankly, you’re getting on our nerves.”
“The faster we all wrapped things up here the better,” Seishi said, forcing a cold edge into his voice. He handed Risai her sword. Bringing it with him had been no afterthought.
“We want to know what you’re after.”
“Doesn’t look to me like they’re in the mood to talk. No matter what they say, we have no way of knowing whether they were telling the truth or not. They seem to think they can just go on playing a couple of peeping toms.”
“So it seems,” Risai started to say, when one of the men raised his voice.
“And what are you really after?”
Though not as flustered as his companion, the tension was clear in his voice. This man clearly possessed measurably more intestinal fortitude.
“What we’re after?”
“What do you plan on doing with these displaced persons and refugees you’re looking for? Haul them back to Kouki?”
Risai furrowed her brows. “Meaning what?”
“Meaning take them to Kouki in order to make conscripts out of them.”
Risai relaxed her grip on the hit of her sword. “Are you guessing? Or do you have reasons to believe that is actually going on?”
“No doubt!” spit out his more frightened partner.
The tougher of the two glared back at Risai. “Enough of the lies. We can see them clear as day. Somebody gets in your way, the first thing you do is run them through. We may be nothing but dead men walking to you, but don’t get too comfortable thinking Heaven will overlook your sins forever.”
Risai and Seishi exchanged glances. At that moment, with a sudden surge of courage, the scaredy-cat reared up and threw a right hook at Risai’s chest. Reflexively shifting to the side, she stumbled off balance. Like dancers changing partners, Seishi stepped into her place and pinned the man’s arms behind his back, pushed him to the ground and knelt astride his back.
“Stop it,” said the more stalwart of the two.
The scaredy-cat squirmed in Seishi’s grip. “We’ll get back at you for this!”
“That’s not going to happen. Give it a rest.”
Risai and Seishi again exchanged looks. There was something increasingly strange about this whole scene.
“Let him go,” Risai said to Seishi. To the man still standing, “We’re not looking to get anybody hurt here. Just keep him from doing anything stupid, okay?”
The man nodded, and when Seishi let his prisoner go, he squatted down and threw a burly arm around his shoulders, seizing him as tightly as Seishi had.
Risai knelt down next to them. “Are you from Gamon Temple?” she asked the big man.
“If you’re asking if we came from Gamon Temple, the answer is no. We live in Rin’u.”
“Do you or do you not have any connections to the Fu Clan?”
He didn’t answer the question.
“I’ll take that as a yes. So you are part of the Fu organization.”
The man hesitated. “Yeah,” he said.
The man in his grip squirmed like a fractious child. “Shut up! Don’t say anything!”
“Settle down. I understand where you’re coming from, but we won’t be going anywhere locking horns with people like them. Besides, there seems to be basic misunderstanding here.”
“A misunderstanding?” Risai asked.
“Answer me this. What are you going after the refugees for?”
“We’re not going after the refugees for anything. I’ll tell you what I told Hoyou-dono. We’re looking for a colleague of ours, and we’re pretty sure the refugees might have clues that will help track him down. To that end, we’re looking for people well known among the refugees and their acquaintances. If that’s not possible, then we’d like to meet somebody with an ear to the ground, who could pass along the rumors and stories circulating in the refugee community. Do you know anybody like that?”
“And this is on the up and up?”
“Of course, it is. Now, what’s this business about taking people to Kouki you were talking about earlier?”
“You’re not collecting bounties on refugees?”
“Bounties? You mean there are bounty hunters tracking down displaced persons and hauling them back to Kouki? Who is doing this and why?”
“Don’t play dumb!” He shouted. “Your boss, that’s who! The beast that is kidnapping people and impressing them as soldiers!” He wrenched himself free and flung himself on the ground. “Why does Heaven allow such sins to occur? How much longer can these injustices continue?”
Risai leaned over and said to him, “What’s your name?” She urged him to sit up. “Listen, my name is Risai. What’s yours?”
“Risai-sama,” Seishi cautioned her in a quiet voice.
But Risai brushed aside his concerns. She turned to the man’s companion. “What about you?”
The man looked back at Risai in obvious confusion. Risai smiled. “It’s cold out here. How about we continue this conversation someplace a bit more comfortable?”
Risai and Seishi returned to the safe house with the two men. Risai asked Houto and Yotaku to prepare something warm for them to drink and invited them to sit down next to the hibachi.
The tougher of the two said, “Risai—would that be General Ryuu?”
Risai answered with a dry smile. “A name with a bad reputation these days. All I can say is that I was framed and the crimes I’m accused of were made up.”
“I know,” the man said. “Call me Shoushitsu. I was a gendarme stationed in the city of Houtaku.”
“A gendarme. A member of the Bun Provincial Guard?”
Shoushitsu nodded. Indicating his wide-eyed companion, he said, “He’s a displaced person who fled to Hakurou. His name is Tanchoku. The beast put his city to the torch and killed his family. He ended up on his own.” He faced Tanchoku directly and nodded. “She is one of His Highness’s retainers. The beast made up stories about her committing regicide. She’s been on the run ever since.”
Tanchoku raised his head, the surprise evident on his face. “Then you’re not bounty hunters?”
Shoushitsu shook his head and Risai said, “You mentioned that before. What’s this business about hunting down refugees and displaced persons like yourself?”
“What he said.” A hard expression rose to Shoushitsu’s face. “They’re recruiting refugees and displaced persons on the sly and shipping them off to Kouki where they conscript them as soldiers.”
“Asen is behind this?”
Shoushitsu nodded. “I’ve heard them sweet-talking people to bring them along. But for the most part, they use strong-arm tactics. They round people up and impress them into service. They’re doing this in such an underhanded manner to keep word from getting out that the Imperial Army is understaffed, and to hide the fact they’re using forced conscription to fill the ranks.”
Unbelievable, Risai was about to exclaim, except she could see how it all made sense.
Of the six divisions in the Imperial Army, desertions had reduced four of them to divisions on paper only. Asen had to be concerned about the chronic decline in troop strength, and there were limits to the number of soldiers they could reassign from the outlying provinces.
“Soldiers?” Tanchoku shouted. “Because they got a few minutes of training? They’re just a bunch of amateurs who barely know how to hold a sword. Human pincushions whose only job is to make the archers shooting at them waste their arrows.”
All too believable, Risai groaned to herself.
A draft was the normal response to a deficit of soldiers. But such measures aroused discontent amongst the citizenry. More importantly, they made clear to the enemy the rough shape of the armed forces. Hence the need to hunt down and conscript displaced persons in secret.
Risai’s lips twisted into a frown. “They make victims of them to start with, and then again when they turn them into human shields and toss them aside.” She tasted bitter bile inside her mouth.
“It’s just like Tanchoku said. How can Heaven condone such abuses?”
If an emperor went to such lengths, Heaven would punish him for straying from the Way. But Asen was no emperor so Heaven could not interfere.
Risai harbored no doubts about the reality of Heaven. But the Heaven that Tanchoku mentioned when he asked why such sins went unpunished was a different matter. Those were questions he asked of the world. Risai knew there were those bearing the imprimatur of Heaven who looked down upon this world, and while commanding the emperor to hew to the Way, turned a blind eye to Asen’s injustices.
“No matter what, their crooked ways must be corrected,” Seishi said.
Risai nodded. “We intend to bring to justice all of those who have committed injustice. We are searching for His Highness in order to achieve that end.”
Shoushitsu and Tanchoku turned their attention to Risai. “Except His Highness—” Tanchoku started to say.
“He is not dead. However, we do not know where he is. Hence the search.”
“And that’s why you are asking amongst the refugees?” Shoushitsu asked.
“Yes. Putting together the information we have gathered so far, we have good reason to believe that, at the time, His Highness was assisted by refugees working on Kan’you Mountain. Do you know of anyone who might have seen or heard something along those lines? Even rumors would be fine.”
Shoushitsu and Tanchoku exchanged glances. At length, Shoushitsu said, “I haven’t heard about anything like that. But I’m not around the refugee community that often these days.”
“I don’t have anything to add either. If somebody did lend His Highness a hand, you’d think the word would get out eventually.”
“Yeah, I can see that.”
“Hoyou-sama may have more specific information about these matters,” Shoushitsu said. “Give us a little more time to look into it.”