17-3 They passed through the big gate. While they were handing over their kijuu to the stable hands, a servant ran off deeper into the compound. Along with Kiro, they entered the outer courtyard and passed through the middle courtyard. About the time they reached the main pavilion at the back, a tall, rugged man bolted from the bedroom off the central hall.
It was Sougen, the first time Risai had seen him in seven years. He ran up and stopped in front of her. Struggling to maintain his composure, he placed a hand on her shoulder and bowed his head. “It’s good to see you’re alive and well.”
“You too, Sougen. I’m so happy we could finally meet.”
Sougen responded with a big bob of his head. He led her to the living room and offered her a chair. Risai removed her overcoat and tunic and sat down. Sougen reacted with an obvious start of surprise, then leaned forward and gave her an examining look.
“Risai, you’ve been injured—”
For a moment, Risai didn’t understand what he was referring to, and then realized he meant her missing limb.
“Oh, yes. A youma made off with my arm.”
“Ah,” Sougen said with a pained expression.
Risai smiled in a way that said it was no big deal. It truly wasn’t. She surprised herself at how often she completely put it out of her mind. Could a person really get accustomed to such a drastic loss? By this point, no longer particularly inconvenienced by having only one arm, she wasn’t constantly conscious of the loss.
“You did a good job of figuring out where I was.”
“To tell the truth, we didn’t know you were here before we set out. We’ve been following the training trail and only just arrived. Meeting Kiro on the road to Koutaku was a happy accident.”
“You braved the training trail in this weather?” Sougen said in evident surprise.
“Well, we did have our kijuu.” Risai introduced Seishi, Kyoshi, and Sodou. “And Sodou-dono here as our guide. Thanks to him, we were able to meet you, which made the journey well worth the effort. In fact, we set off in search of Gyousou-sama, the theory being that he might have taken that route in the past.”
“So that’s what brought you here,” Sougen said, a pensive look rising to his face.
“Someone had passed that way before. That was the sliver of hope we clung to.”
“You saw what Gaikatsu and his men left behind. We’ve also made use of the route since to move back and forth to the more central regions of Bun Province.”
“Oh. I see.”
It was discouraging news, to be sure, but Risai was not about to give up in despair. Thanks to Gaikatsu and Sougen, the training route was a viable transportation option. The work done by Gaikatsu and his crew in particular made it a far easier route to traverse.
“We are also searching for Gyousou-sama, but—” Sougen lowered his voice. “Don’t you think it is possible that—”
“No,” Risai stated in no uncertain terms. “Gyousou-sama is not dead.”
Sougen rose to his feet. “Are you certain?”
“Without a doubt.”
“Except just the other day, Asen—”
“Do not trust anything to do with that man.”
Risai related to Sougen what Moku’u told them. After that, the conversation grew beyond the subject at hand. Sougen caught her up on the past seven years of his life and Risai did the same. By the time Sodou retired for the evening, their discussions had barely gotten started.
Familiar faces gathered around as they continued to talk—about their retainers and staff members, about Tai and the people of Tai. Late into the night, the subject moved onto the matter of Taiki.
“According to official announcements, Taiki chose Asen as the next emperor.”
“So I’ve heard,” Risai said, and then with a look urged him to clear the room.
Sougen caught her meaning at once. Aside from Gaikatsu and Kouka, he shooed everybody away and had Kiro stand watch for anybody entering the main pavilion.
“So this is information you want to keep off the record?”
Risai nodded. “The Taiho is doing fine. Despite being swept away to Hourai by a shoku, we were able to bring him home. But right now I do not know where he is.”
Risai admitted that Taiki disappeared quite out of the blue. “Kouryou went with him. I’m sure he had his reasons. We haven’t heard a word since then.”
Kyoshi said that messages could be passed using the Taoist temples and the shin’nou, but no such communiques had reached them yet.
“According to Moku’u, the Taiho is in the Imperial Palace. I have no way of verifying that information.”
“Do you think it is possible that Asen captured him and is using him to further his own ends?”
“I don’t think so.”
Sougen heaved a big sigh. “So we don’t know for certain where the Taiho is and have no idea where His Highness might be.”
“We do have good news. Gamon Temple has five thousand men at their disposal. Combined with your forces, that comes to eleven thousand. A full division.”
And if Tonkou could be taken at his word, a division was enough to take the provincial castle.
“That definitely is good news. But just how far can we trust his reading of the situation? People are falling ill at both the imperial and provincial levels.”
“After talking with Tonkou, I don’t think his outlook is as naive as it sounds. It’s not likely that everybody opposed to Asen was purged from the civil service. The province lord of Bun is ill, but we have reasons to doubt whether contracting the disease alone means they can be counted as allies of Asen. To be sure, they act in ways convenient to Asen, though without any sense of loyalty or devotion.”
“So in that light, you do think it is possible?”
Risai nodded. “All we need is His Highness.”
If they could take possession of the provincial castle with Gyousou in command, they could raise the standard of revolt against Asen.
“If we have His Highness, the people will certainly rally to the cause. But that will take time. In the meantime, we would need to be fully prepared to defend against a first strike from Asen. Having Gamon Temple on our side is reassuring and we can expect support from the Koutaku Ordination Hall. But we lack the manpower and matériel to pose a serious challenge to Asen.”
“If only Gyousou-sama were here, we could make up for those deficits.” Responding to the dubious expression on Sougen’s face, she explained, “All the better if Gyousou-sama escaped from Tai to En. If he sought support from the Imperial En, he could receive assistance from many of the emperors and empresses of the Twelve Kingdoms.”
“Unbelievable!” Sougen exclaimed, his eyes flying wide open. “Many of the emperors and empresses?”
“I am sure the Imperial En would be willing to make the arrangements. Given the exigent circumstances, starting with En, we should be able to solicit the support of Sou, Han, Kyou, Kei, and Ren.”
“En and Sou—” Sougen muttered. “Are you sure about that?”
“I am positive,” Risai said.
She understood the look on Sougen’s face. The great kingdom of Sou lay far to the south of En. To speak of seeking the support of En and Sou in the same breath was hardly different than asking the same of the entire world.
“The only task left to is to find His Highness. Sougen, we would like your help searching to the east of Koutaku.”
“To the east of Koutaku?”
Risai nodded. Gyousou was nowhere to be found within the vicinity of Kan’you Mountain, she explained. There would have been no way for him to move north or south, nor could he have escaped to the west. They concluded that he had fled east using the training trails.
As Risai laid out her reasoning, the expressions on the faces of Sougen and his retainers only grew sterner and more skeptical.
Finally Risai stopped and said to Sougen, “What?”
“Risai, we have already searched for His Highness.”
Risai caught her breath. But of course they had.
“Like you, we’ve spent the past three years searching in and about Rin’u. And like you, the results of that three years of work led us to abandon any possible escape routes to the south or west. We do not believe His Highness headed in either direction.”
Sougen nodded. “We arrived at the same conclusion. He must have used the training trails. Since relocating to Koutaku, operating on that premise, we continued our searches of Koutaku and Rin’u and their environs. We also hoped to turn up any officers in the Imperial Army who might have gone into hiding.”
Risai found herself at a loss for words. The training trail had been their last ray of hope.
“I’m sorry, Risai. You won’t find His Highness here either. I think it highly unlikely that His Highness traveled over the training trails.”
“You’re sure about that—” Risai said, ready to argue with his conclusions, but Sougen only quietly shook his head.
“We’ve set up our base of operations here in Koutaku. Put another way, this whole area is our home territory. As a result, we’ve become thoroughly familiar with the lay of the land. A web of human connections exists, often just out of sight. We kept up the search but haven’t found a single footprint. No rumors of seeing an injured military commander or people moving a wounded man fitting his description.” Sougen paused. “Well, no. There have been whispers here and there. We hunted down every piece of evidence we turned up. You can see those results for yourself.”
Risai recalled the people she’d met so far in Koutaku. Not only those who escaped with Sougen, but those they’d found along the way, and those who had gathered around them. He’d left no stone unturned in his unflagging search. The evidence was everywhere she looked.
“We’ve found plenty of people, but none of them were His Highness. All I can say for certain is that he did not come down this road. Or if he did, for whatever reason, he did not reach the end.”
Risai was momentarily too taken aback to speak.
Sougen looked at her with sad eyes. “I couldn’t say so for an absolute fact because nothing in this world is ever that absolute. But His Highness did not cross the training trail. That’s the conclusion we came to.”
Risai finally found her voice. “So Gyousou-sama simply disappeared—”
“Hold that thought,” Kyoshi said. “Did you know that a wounded military officer was hiding in a village called Rouan in Bun Province?”
Sougen drew his brows. “Rouan?”
“By no means a large village. I don’t suppose you have heard of it. We saw no signs there that search teams had been there before.”
This revelation prompted a flurry of consternation among Sougen’s retainers. They exchanged glances and muttered under their breaths.
“Of course, the people of Rouan went to great lengths to keep his presence secret, which was why he probably never came to your attention.”
Sougen said, a stony expression on his face, “In other words, we might have overlooked His Highness in the same way?”
“As you said yourself, there are no absolutes in this world. You’ve got limits on your manpower and you’ve had to operate undercover during your search efforts. On top of that, everybody everywhere is extra wary about anything having to do with Asen. There is a group in Rin’u that’s been sheltering a woman that nobody else had known about until today.”
Sougen sank into silence,
Kyoshi continued. “I think it might be premature to declare that His Highness couldn’t have come this way. When you can’t find what you’re looking for, that doesn’t mean it’s not there. It’s possible that we’re looking the wrong way or looking in the wrong place. At the very least, we’d like to reconsider the problem in that light.”
Kyoshi glanced around the room. “I apologize for showing up like this at this late hour and saying such things. However, the subject has long been on my mind. I am well aware how presumptuous this counsel may sound. Risai-sama has thus far put an enormous amount of effort into the cause. Sougen and his men have been hard at work even longer. It stands to reason, then, that you should want to make progress and tally up results by ruling out this and ruling out that. I understand the desire so much it hurts. But you’ve got to distance yourself from the impulse to keep score. That knowledge is ingrained in all those who walk the training trails from the start.”
“That knowledge—” Sougen echoed.
Kyoshi nodded. “Instructors repeatedly warn their apprentices not to do so during their training because it will only dull the value of what they’re trying to learn.”
“Makes sense,” Sougen said with a wry smile. “Not finding what we’re looking for means the search isn’t over, not what we’re looking for doesn’t exist.”
“Wait a minute!” Risai said. She wrapped her arm around her head and stared down at the ground, as if struck by a violent headache.
“Risai-sama, I understand how you feel—”
“No, no, no. Not that! Just wait a minute!” Risai grabbed at her bangs. Pressing her hand against her forehead, she raised a finger. “We’ve assumed that Gyousou-sama was badly wounded. But if he wasn’t, then he would be sure to reestablish contact with his army as quickly as possible. If he suffered severe wounds and attempted to flee under his own power, then Eishou’s patrols surely would have found traces left behind. He couldn’t have covered that much distance in the meantime or covered his tracks.”
Risai kept her finger raised, as if to ward off any interruptions.
“At the time, anybody attempting to break through the pickets and encampments encircling Rin’u would need help. The more of them there were, the more noticeable they’d become. Their movements would be severely constrained. All the more so if ordinary folk were involved. Making a successful escape without leaving a trail behind is no simple task.”
“Hold onto that thought. There is no safe passage north of Kan’you Mountain. That is rocky terrain with no paths or roads to speak of. We didn’t find any evidence of Gyousou-sama in the vicinity of Kan’you Mountain. The hakushi have been searching for years and have confirmed as much. If he fled south, he would have come into contact with Eishou’s pickets, if not the army itself. Moreover, the hakushi found nothing that indicated he had passed through those encampments. The west is out of the question. For a long time now, Hoyou’s people have been on the lookout for any such signs and have also found nothing. That leaves the east. Except Sougen and his soldiers have continually scouted the area without turning up anything.”
Risai raised her head.
“That being the case, we are left with one logical conclusion. Gyousou-sama never left Kan’you Mountain.”
That statement prompted a collective gulp of surprise. “But, Risai-sama,” Kyoshi started to say when Seishi said in a startled voice, “The landslides.”
Risai nodded, her eyes bright and shining. “Kyuusan and the people who work on the mountain said so several repeatedly. Landslides and cave-ins happen all the time.”
The result of the haphazard and unregulated mining. In order to keep the stones they cultured from getting stolen, many miners staked claims to gemstones fountains and never revealed their locations or even the access routes. They dug mines here and there and everywhere at their own convenience, without any thought to safety. Having gone on for so long, these practices left the mountain in a fragile and unstable state.
Cave-ins in unknown mines and shafts buried hidden treasures like the Kouin. Everybody knew that digging through the rubble and finding one would provide windfall for life, and yet they went undiscovered, out of reach from the start.
“In fact, there was a big landslide on Kan’you Mountain the day Gyousou-sama disappeared. We think it stopped his attackers from finishing him off and gave Gyousou-sama a chance to escape. But what if the landslide also trapped him in the mountain and he was never able to leave in the first place?”
Risai answered her own question with an emphatic nod.
“Going in, Gyousou-sama was caught in the trap they had laid, but the landslide prevented them from delivering the coup de grace. With His Highness caught up in the disaster and presumed dead, his attackers considered the job done and withdrew. But when the White Pheasant did not fall from its perch, Asen would know that Gyousou-sama hadn’t died. Nevertheless, there’s no evidence of Asen sending a large-scale search party to Kan’you Mountain. Perhaps Asen conducted the search behind the scenes, and subsequently captured and detailed him. Except if Asen had Gyousou-sama in his grasp, there is no way he would let him live. As he is not dead, Asen must not have captured him.”
Seishi leaned forward, an intrigued expression on his face.
“But look at it from an opposing perspective. Asen wouldn’t necessarily have to kill Gyousou-sama. If he never again appeared in public, and was rendered incapable of influencing the political process, the reins of government would remain securely in Asen’s hands. In fact, that approach might well be preferable. If Gyousou died, the Taiho would choose the next emperor, bringing Asen’s reign to an end.”
“Ah!” Seishi exclaimed.
“That’s right,” Risai said. The intent never was to kill him. From the start, keeping Gyousou-sama alive and out of Imperial Palace guaranteed trying times for Tai. During those times, Providence could not act to correct the errant conditions.”
“So that was Asen’s objective all along?”
“I think so. Consequently, it had to be Kan’you Mountain and it had to be Bun Province. The plan all along was to attack him and confine him in the depths of the mountain itself. Except Asen is not the cornerstone of the kingdom. The Taiho posed the greatest threat to an Asen Dynasty. He would sense the Imperial Aura and know that Gyousou-sama was on Kan’you Mountain. Knowing where he was, he would sally forth to save him.”
Sougen said in a low voice, “He couldn’t because his horn was severed.”
Risai nodded. That was when Seishi raised his voice. “Risai-sama, now it makes sense! The wooden boxes!”
“The wooden boxes?”
“Two big wooden boxes were transported to Kan’you Mountain shortly before Gyousou-sama disappeared. That unfortunate woman said living creatures were inside those boxes. Everyone we talked to who lived through the landside recalled hearing a terrifying sound, like a beast in its death throes.”
“Yes, they did. Meaning?”
“It was a ririki. A youma.”
Seishi became familiar with the ririki when he accompanied Gyousou on the Shouzan. It was said that the roar of that beast could shatter stone. On the verge of death, it could change the shape of an entire mountain. Asen somehow got his hands on a ririki and used that destructive force for that purpose.
Risai and Seishi exchanged a long look.
“They attacked Gyousou-sama and mortally wounded him. Then they dragged him inside the mountain and used the roar of a ririki to collapse the mineshaft.”
As emperor, Gyousou would not easily lose his life, no matter how severe his wounds. With Taiki under Asen’s thumb and Gyousou sealed away in the depths of Kan’you Mountain, Asen had all of the power and authority of the kingdom at his disposal, with no need to fear the judgments of Heaven.
As long as the rightful emperor lived, the throne rested in Asen’s hands and nothing could upset the status quo.