Hills of Silver Ruins

Chapter 24

16-7 Around noon, a bellowing voice practically knocked Boushuku off his chair in the guardroom.

“Where is the Taiho!”

Two steps ahead of him, Gogetsu also ran toward the gate. Boushuku hurried to catch up, and then stepped dead in his tracks.

A man the size of a big boulder stood in the snow in front of the gate. He wore a full set of armor and carried a big sword in one hand.

Boushuku felt his knees shake. In the grip of the equally huge man holding it, the huge weapon actually looked normal. Boushuku had no difficulty imagining the rush of wind when he swung that sword and the blade parted the air. He felt his hands and feet growing cold as the blood drained from his extremities. His hands shaking from the tension, he took a tighter hold of his lance, even knowing a single sweep of that sword would slice it in two.

He was settling into an offensive stance when Gogetsu held up a hand to stop him.

“Ganchou-sama?” Gogetsu said.

The big man narrowed his eyes and looked at him. “If you know my name, then announce my presence to the Taiho.”

p. 271

Boushuku was at an utter loss for words. The Director ran up. “This is Ganchou-sama,” he said. “Ganchou-sama, what can we do for you?”

“Having received numerous summonses from the Taiho, I decided to pay him an unannounced visit. Please communicate that message to the Taiho.”

The next to arrive was Keitou, even before Ganchou had finished speaking. As soon as Keitou saw him, he straightened and then bowed deeply.

“Ah, so you have at last honored us with your presence. I shall let the Taiho know as soon as possible.” He called out to his assistants and motioned toward the villa. “We would be pleased if you could wait inside.”

Boushuku glanced around in confusion. Who was this general? Why had he so readily been granted an audience with the Saiho? Hadn’t they been told that any such meetings with outsiders were off limits? They had been expressly ordered to deny entrance to anyone unless specifically granted permission.

Gogetsu calmly pushed down the shaft of the lance. “Boushuku, it’s okay.”

“But—”

“He is one of Gyousou-sama’s senior staff. He commanded the Army of the Left in the Palace Guard.”

p. 272

All Boushuku could do was nod in response. He’d heard that most of Gyousou’s retainers had fled the palace. According to the rumors, the only one left was a general in the Army of the Left. He’d been relieved of his duties and placed under house arrest. And not just house arrest, some said he was being physically restrained as well.

Paying Boushuku’s bewildered expression no mind, Keitou courteously escorted Ganchou to the outer courtyard. They passed through the garden and climbed the steps to the raised foundation and inner walkway of the villa. That was when several people rushed up to them.

Boushuku wasn’t familiar with any of their faces. The young woman in their midst with a pair of swords tucked into her waistband must be the Daiboku. The young man behind her with the willowy build struck no chords. The young man stopped in his tracks, a started look on his face.

A look of recognition rising to his countenance, Ganchou came to a halt as well. A hoarse cry arose from the bottom of his lungs and he fell to his knees. Placing the big sword on the ground next to him, he bowed his head to the ground.

“Taiho, your presence has been sorely missed.”

That is the Saiho, Boushuku told himself, his eyes round with surprise. But his hair—

As if pushed from behind, the young man ran up to Ganchou. He knelt next to Ganchou and placed his hand on his back. “Ganchou, are you doing all right? Please, raise your head.”

Ganchou straightened his upper body and looked again at Taiki. “You’ve grown up.”

p. 273

“Yes, I have,” Taiki said with a bob of his head.

His hair was the furthest thing from golden. A slightly different tint of black. Ah, Boushuku reminded himself in something of a daze. Taiki is the Black Kirin.

This really was the kirin of Tai? There in front of him, the Saiho knelt next to Ganchou and rested his forehead on his shoulder.

“I’m so glad you came.”

This was the first time Boushuku had seen the Saiho. For that matter, the first time he had seen any kirin. He couldn’t help thinking he looked rather ordinary, all the more so because he appeared on the verge of tears.

“Forgive my incivility, but I have been of two minds for the longest time now. I came here hoping to provide the Taiho with what little support I am capable of.”

Taiki shook his head. “There is nothing little about it. Far from it, I need your strength and wish to borrow whatever you have to spare.”

“I am happy to serve you in whatever capacity I can.”

Keitou interrupted at that point to say with a sweep of his arm, “Let’s us proceed inside.”

Taiki grasped Ganchou’s hand and helped him to his feet. Then taking in rest of them with a sweeping glance, even briefly looking Boushuku in the eye, he said, “This is Ganchou. Starting today, he is my Daiboku.”

“Once the Chousai catches wind of these developments, he is bound to stick his oar in. I will make sure he hears the news from me first, and do my best to head off any objections.”

On that less-than-reassuring note, having escorted Ganchou as a far as the main hall, Keitou hurried off.

p. 274

Yari bid Keitou goodbye and led Ganchou into the living room. She cleared everybody out and secured the entrances and exits. She then stood in front of the glass doors such that she could clearly be seen standing there blocking the way.

Taiki motioned Ganchou to a chair. “I was told you wouldn’t meet with me.”

Ganchou nodded. “I was delighted to hear you wished to see me. But I foolishly and willfully disobeyed your request. Then I heard about things of a suspicious nature taking place in your presence. And Yari—” Ganchou glanced over his shoulder at her. “Yari sent me word that you needed a guard.”

Yari sent a message to Ganchou that morning. With Kouryou no longer available, they needed Ganchou’s strength, at least one more trustworthy person at the villa to serve as Taiki’s Daiboku.

“I hardly have the right to show my face at this late hour, but I decided to pay you a visit, hoping this unworthy soul could somehow be of use.”

“Thank you,” Taiki said. “When I was told you couldn’t see me, I thought people were making up stories.”

“Please forgive me.”

p. 275

Yari interrupted at that point. “He’s had hostages to worry about.”

“Yari—” Ganchou turned to her.

“There’s no sense trying to keep it a secret now.” She said to Taiki, “His staff officers and close associates are being held in locations around the palace. Stepping out of line puts them at risk. He locked himself away to guarantee their safety. He shrunk that big frame of his as small as possible and shut himself down like clam.”

Taiki said, “And that is why you couldn’t come to see me?”

Ganchou nodded. “To tell the truth, I simply haven’t been able to make up my mind until now. My actions could put many people in danger. But others urged me on. They said the Taiho needed me.”

“Others?”

“There are many amongst the minsters and civil servants who have resigned themselves to the status quo yet remain opposed to Asen’s rule. To keep from getting caught out, they maintain as low a profile as possible.”

Taiki faced Ganchou and grasped his hands in his own. Nothing so clearly communicated how much he had grown since they had last met.

“You really have become a fine young man.”

“And you haven’t changed at all. I’m sorry, but I find that tremendously reassuring.” Taiki asked, “Do you meet Kouryou?”

p. 276

“Yes. He made it safely out of the palace. He had to leave his kijuu behind so I lent him one from the stables at the Forbidden Gate. Not the best of the breed, but it should get him to Ba Province without any difficulty.”

“Thank you.”

“Kouryou said you would need a Daiboku to take his place. And since I didn’t have a job, how about it?” Ganchou lowered his voice. “He filled me in on what’s been going on around here.”

“Good.” Taiki glanced over his shoulder. “My thanks to you as well, Yari.”

Yari answered with a wordless nod.

“The decision not to meet with you was ultimately up to me, though it’s a fact that bastard Chou’un was against it too. I don’t doubt he handed down orders to that effect.”

“Not a problem,” Taiki stated crisply. “Whatever he’s got planned, I can handle it.”

“You’ve grown some steel in that spine of yours.”

p. 277

“Well, I’m not a little kid anymore,” Taiki said with a faint smile. “And I’ve probably gotten just as good at being bad as being good.”

“However regrettable that may sound, I find your words tremendously reassuring.”

When the rumors reached Santou that Ganchou had gone to see Taiki, he reacted with a sigh of relief.

Welcome news.

Santou had risen up the ranks under Ganchou to become one of his retainers. Of the six generals in the Imperial Army, one openly rebelled and four disappeared. Ganchou alone remained behind in the enemy camp. Santou was sure he wanted to join the rebels, but so many of his friends and associates had been taken hostage, he couldn’t do so in good conscience. Ganchou’s decision to remain under Asen’s thumb broke something inside the man.

Santou’s commanding officer was a bighearted man, bigger than life in every way, like the gallant subject of a heroic painting. Everything he did was suffused with empathy and honor. Santou would always hold him in respect and affection, but he had also sadly concluded that, unable to set aside his emotions or abandon his sense of honor and duty, Ganchou had become his own worst enemy.

Robbed of his rank and reduced to the status of a commoner, he holed up in his official residence and turned a deaf ear to the advice of his few remaining friends. At length, even his home was taken from him. In its place, he was given the use of one of the barracks adjacent to the Forbidden Gate, a residence in name only.

The reason given was that Ganchou was the only person who could care for Keito, Gyousou’s kijuu. But it was obvious to everyone that Asen had demoted one of Gyousou’s senior staff officers to the status of stable hand.

p. 278

Nevertheless, Ganchou uttered not a word of complaint. Every time they met, Santou counseled Ganchou that he should not simply lie down and take it like that.

Fortunately, Hinken, Santou’s superior officer, was a general who understood the head and the heart. He empathized with Ganchou, and offered him a command position at the battalion or regimental level. Ganchou refused. He wasn’t about to serve under Asen in any capacity. In any case, he was fully cognizant that Chou’un, and the Minister of Summer, who was at his beck and call, would never sign off on such an appointment.

Even so, Santou was grateful to Hinken for repeatedly reaching out to Ganchou, despite all the roadblocks.

On paper, at least, Hinken should have been Santou’s enemy as well. In the first place, Hinken led two regiments on the expedition to Bun Province during which Gyousou disappeared. Though it couldn’t be said that Hinken had participated in Asen’s coup against Gyousou. Asen came to that decision and carried it off by himself. Given Hinken’s character, had he become aware of what was in the offing, he likely would have intervened, even at the risk of his own life.

Santou was certain that Hinken possessed such qualities of character. Of Asen’s five regimental commanders, he was no standout. At the same time, there was nothing lacking in his skills as a commander. He simply did not engage in the kinds of activities that made him memorable. Though widely considered honest and reliable, from the perspective of soldiers in other divisions, he was not a regimental commander who made a lasting impression.

Hinken undoubtedly understood that he came up short when compared with his colleagues. And yet that aroused in him no pointless enmity. The temperament of the unexcitable Hinken, who got down to business in his even-keeled way, somehow connected with the people around him.

At least, that’s how it seemed to Santou, and, by and large, that’s what Hinken’s retainers apparently took away from their interactions with him as well.

p. 279

A brigade commander like Kisen had no problems serving under an outsider like Santou. No one begrudged him for stepping in from the sidelines and taking over the position. Far from it, Kisen paid him the respect due his office and worked for him in good faith. Kisen was the one who informed him that Ganchou had visited Taiki (and that information likely originated with Hinken).

“A welcome turn of events.”

He appeared honestly happy to hear the news. Such a temperament allowed him to fit in well with Santou’s retainers. A man like him is hard to come by, Santou thought. He said aloud, “I have to say I’m relieved. Ganchou-sama was doing himself little good by staying stuck in the rut he was in.”

“Yes,” Kisen said with a nod. “Outward appearances may suggest he is betraying Gyousou-sama, but he ended up in a really difficult position. He’s like a brother to Gyousou-sama.”

Santou agreed. To Gyousou, Ganchou was like the older sibling he could always trust to have his back. At the same time, to Ganchou, Gyousou was the overachieving kid brother he loved to boast about. Ganchou looked up to him as his lord and master without the slightest hesitation or regret. Ganchou truly delighted in serving Gyousou. Consequently, Ganchou celebrated Gyousou’s rise to the highest status in the world from the bottom of his heart.

Nevertheless, Ganchou ultimately yielded to sentiment and his sense of duty and surrendered to Asen. Unable to forgive himself for this fallen state, he retreated to a lowly corner of the Imperial Palace as a kind of self-imposed punishment.

p. 280

Santou said, “Wishing to work on behalf of the Taiho, Ganchou emerged from his exile and volunteered his services. That truly is good news. Though I am sure Asen won’t treat it as such.”

Kisen shook his head in confusion. “Why would that be? Since the Taiho is supporting His Highness, wouldn’t working for the Taiho be the same as working for His Highness?”

“Well, it certainly sounds sensible when you put it like that, but—”

“I understand why he could not work for His Highness. But serving the Taiho should allow him to ameliorate those feelings of guilt. The end result is that His Highness can now count an experienced general among his retainers. I have long believed it was a shame for such a talented man to bury his abilities. Serving the Taiho is no different than serving the kingdom and the people. I think this will prove to be a beneficial decision for all involved.”

Santou nodded and said with a courteous tip of his head, “Thank you. I am indebted to you and to Hinken-sama too.”

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