17-2 Following the training trail east toward Mount You proved as difficult as the rumors claimed. Even riding kijuu, they encountered obstacles that sent a cold shiver down the spine. Traversing Mount You itself wasn’t any easier.
Along the way, relying on Hien, Risai scouted ahead by herself. The spires of the peaks soared into the sky like tall trees in a forest. Weary of surmounting one after the other, she instead tried to thread her way through the deep ravines between them. But after weaving back and forth, she soon got herself turned around and lost her sense of direction.
Patches of level ground were few and far between and the ridgelines obscured the view. The walls of rock turned back and forth and circled around like folding screens made out of stone, turning the landscape into a giant maze, vistas that reminded Risai of her journey to Mount Hou.
From deep in the valleys that sank like fissures into the earth, she tried pinpointing the peak of a Ryou’un Mountains to use as a landmark, but with so many clustered together, they proved useless as signposts. It was equally unlikely that any other road led in their direction. When she attempted to follow the cataracts upstream, the countless waterfalls slowed her progress to a crawl. Without a flying kijuu, it’d be impossible to get anywhere close to where they were going.
She had no difficulty imagining what a huge challenge getting past such natural obstacles would present to anyone traveling on foot.
There is no other way north. The training trail is the only course to take. With no accessible southern or western routes, this was the only option. The evidence left behind clearly suggested someone had been this way before.
On the third day, the looming peaks to the right and left finally fell away. The road grew straighter and flatter. After crossing one more valley, the peaks of Takuou Mountain came into view. Descending the mountain trail the rest of the way, they arrived at a shrine.
The trail diverged at the shrine, with one path ending at Tenjin Shrine on Takuou Mountain, the final station along the training trail. The other continued onto Koutaku in the foothills of Takuou Mountain.
“So if we keep going, we should get to Koutaku?” Kyoshi asked.
Despite wearing thick gloves, both hands were wrapped in bandages. Unaccustomed to riding a kijuu, it took him a while to shed the bad habit of gripping the reins with all his might. The first day was a trial for the poor kijuu as well. But by days two and three, he’d begun to relax a bit in the saddle. So he’d made some progress along the way.
“They likely passed through Koutaku,” Sodou answered.
Koutaku would otherwise have been nothing more than another city on the borderlands. However, to Sekirin Temple, it was the gateway to a major shrine. Moreover, it also encompassed land administered by Danpou Temple, headquartered in Jou Province. The area was home to many shrines with connections to Zui’un Temple and teemed with Taoist temples and Buddhist monasteries.
In order to accommodate the pilgrims and shrine visitors who flocked there, the city had grown to the size of a prefectural capital.
“Bigger than I imagined,” Risai said.
Seishi nodded. “The kind of scale you wouldn’t expect from a city at the foot of a mountain and at the end of the road.”
Koutaku was the final stop along the highway. The only landmark beyond that point was Tenjin Shrine, affiliated with Sekirin Temple. As the training trail was not something the average person had any use for, it could be said that there was nothing after this.
“It would be fair to say that Koutaku was created by the Taoist temples here,” Sodou explained.
Temples and monasteries of all types and sizes crowded together side by side. There were inns to accommodate the pilgrims and visitors, shops and bazaars targeting the crowds, the theaters of the shusei troupes, and the bars and brothels—the high and the low of society all harmoniously crammed together.
Sodou said, “On top of everything else, there is the Koutaku Ordination Hall.”
Risai said with a puzzled look, “Don’t temples and monasteries all have ordination halls?”
Kyoshi nodded. The rules that governed Taoist and Buddhist clergy were known as the precepts. Temples of both faiths had ordination halls where initiates who had taken vows were taught the precepts. Zui’un Temple also had an ordination hall. Elders well versed in the precepts gathered there to define and defend the precepts while instructing the initiates and qualifying applicants as apprentices.
Zui’un Temple had only three ordination halls in Tai. Member Taoists had to undergo the initiation rites at one of them.
Sodou said, “True, but the Koutaku Ordination Hall holds a unique position among them.”
Koutaku being a city of religions, a special group was chartered to create an ecumenical organization. It administered an initiation ritual to screen out theologically suspect acolytes. Anyone wishing to proselytize in Koutaku had to demonstrate a basic allegiance to the precepts established by the Koutaku Ordination Hall.
“Amongst the folk religionists and shamans, there are those with less than forthright intentions. Unlike the Taoist and Buddhist temples, these groups and individuals have no unifying or governing organization. As a result, they often have little in the way of developed rituals and practices. Some new religious sects lack any kind of defined theology to start with. However, anyone wishing to proselytize in Koutaku must be initiated at the Koutaku Ordination Hall and pledge to adhere to and uphold the principles taught there. Subjects such as the character of the preacher, the internal consistency of the doctrines, and means and methods used are covered. If the Koutaku Ordination Hall recognizes the petitioner, it will issue a license. For example, a shaman who belongs to no organized religion can present that license as proof that his teachings are free of heresy.”
“Ah,” said Risai.
Sodou’s explanation struck a chord. A common inquiry made of folk religions was whether its priest or preacher had a license. If they did, the inclination was to take that as a sign of confidence.
“So those licenses come from the Koutaku Ordination Hall?”
“That’s right,” Sodou said. “Religious practitioners come here to obtain a license from the Koutaku Ordination Hall. There they are given an exam. If they fail, they receive further instruction, and in some cases undergo a minimum required training regimen.”
The Koutaku Ordination Hall brought together theologians from the leading Taoist and Buddhist institutions. Applicants there underwent a vigorous array of inquiries. If any logical holes or inconsistencies arose, the cross-examination that followed promised to be no less demanding. Nevertheless, no one got failed for not conforming their doctrines to the teachings of the prevailing sects. The integrity of the results thus bolstered the reputation of the Koutaku Ordination Hall as an unbiased arbiter.
“Makes sense,” Risai murmured to herself, when a voice arose behind her.
Risai turned to the crowd of people. Bundled up against the cold, they wore their hats and caps low over their eyes. Among them, several stopped and raised the hood of their coats and were looking back at Risai. One of them, pulled down the scarf covering much of his face and peered up at Risai, eyes wide.
Risai recognized him. “Kiro?”
“Risai-sama!” he called out and ran over to her. It was most certainly Kiro. He’d served under Sougen as a battalion commander.
“Is that really you, Risai-sama? Goodness, you certainly appear to be in fine fettle!”
“As are you, Kiro.” Risai set Hien down on the ground. “You’ve been doing okay?”
“As well as can be expected, thank you. I’ve been plenty concerned for your welfare, but here you are all in one piece!”
“It’s good to know you are also faring well.”
Kiro dabbed at his eyes with his sleeve, warm eyes set into a worn and wrinkled face. He turned to his colleagues and said in a loud whisper, “It’s General Ryuu!”
The three men nodded. Risai recognized one of them though she couldn’t recall his name. They were also members of Sougen’s entourage. Having served together in the Sui Provincial Guard, Risai and Sougen were naturally familiar with each other’s subordinates.
“Are you living here, Kiro? What about Sougen?”
“He’s here too,” Kiro answered under his breath. “He’s been staying here a while.”
“The actual dimensions of Koutaku are as you have seen. But as far as the kingdom is concerned, it is only a shire castle town on the borderlands.”
Kiso offered to guide them to Sougen’s location.
“Except the eyes of the kingdom do not reach this far. Besides, at a basic level, the de facto authority of the Ordination Hall far outstrips that of the local government offices. Nevertheless, both parties get along well with each other.”
“The Koutaku Ordination Hall?”
“Yes,” Kiro said with a nod. The Koutaku Ordination Hall had taken it upon itself to keep Sougen and his soldiers hidden from the authorities.
Risai asked him, “Did you come here across the training trail?”
“Ah, is that how you got here too, Risai-sama? Ah, in fact, Gaikatsu-sama arrived from Bun Province using the training trails.”
Gaikatsu was one of Sougen’s regimental commanders. When Sougen’s division was ordered to support the subjugation campaign in Jou Province, Kiro and Sougen headed to Jou Province while Gaikatsu remained in Bun Province and took charge of two regiments.
“Gaikatsu disbanded his forces in Kakyou and fled together with his troops. They were pursued by the Provincial Guard and ran out of places to run. Their hideout came under attack and he was badly wounded in the assault. He fled into the mountains. Without knowing where he was headed, he wandered down the training trail and managed to make it here alive.”
Around that time, Sougen dispersed his army in Jou Province. Constantly on the move, he eventually ended up at Danpou Temple, where he was given shelter. Meanwhile, the Koutaku Ordination Hall granted Gaikatsu asylum. Communicating with the head temple through a branch temple in Koutaku, Sougen and Gaikatsu reunited their men.
Realizing the geographical advantages of the area, Sougen and his retinue moved to Koutaku a year after Gyousou’s disappearance.
For Risai, who called Jou her home province, this was a familiar sect. It was a Buddhist temple that, like Sekirin temple, emphasized ascetic training as part of its core doctrine. It had also earned a reputation for restricting access to the extent that permission was required before visit the temple. Though it interacted rarely with other religious orders, it was nevertheless renowned for its “warrior monks.”
Risai often caught sight of the burly armed monks in their clerical robes. The temples and monasteries in the Danpou Temple sect maintained outstanding medical facilities and provided free emergency treatment for injuries that was second to none. Many made use of them, including soldiers in the Provincial Guard. Risai recalled availing herself of their services on several occasions before she was listed on the Registry of Wizards.
“I see. So they gave Sougen asylum. Greatly appreciated.”
“And Oukou-dono before that.”
Risai grabbed hold of Kiro’s elbow. “Oukou?”
“Yes.” Kiro blinked. “Oukou-dono is doing fine. He was the one who connected Sougen-sama to Danpou Temple in the first place.”
Risai closed her eyes and bowed her head. Oukou was one of her retainers and had been at her side since their days in the Jou Provincial Guard.
“Oukou is still alive!”
“Oukou-dono made it to Danpou Temple by the skin of his teeth. They took him in and he’s been working ever since to support the surviving remnants of the Imperial Army.”
“I am deeply grateful.”
Kiro smiled. “Oukou-dono should currently be in Jou Province. We should send a messenger as soon as possible. Ah—” He raised his head. “Here we are.”
He looked up at what could be described as a large manor house. The gate was shut, but the building itself was a good indication of the standing Koutaku had afforded Sougen and his retinue. They were being provided with all the support and protection they needed.
Risai asked, “How many do they have here?”
Kiro had to stop and think that one over. He soon arrived at an answer and said with a big nod, “Not that everybody I’m talking about lives here. But in terms of those under his command, what remains of Sougen’s army come to almost six thousand.”