19-4 The end of winter finally came to the northern quarter of Tai. Even in Bun Province, the wan rays of the sun grew warmer and the snowstorms less frequent. When it snowed, the heavy flakes melted quickly. The icy sheets of the layered snowpack thinned by the day. On patches of level ground facing the sun, black earth peeked out from beneath the white blanket.
Amidst these harbingers of spring, quietly and behind the scenes, a steady stream of people emerged from the northeast of Bun Province. In ones and twos, they left the towns and villages around Koutaku and moved along the highway. Some joined the larger groups on the main thoroughfare while others took the back roads in smaller numbers.
Some on horseback. Others carrying packs on their backs as their hurried along. So as to leave no lasting impression on those around them, many wore triangular bamboo hats pulled low over their eyes or scarves across their faces and looked down at the ground as they continued on through the falling snow in their matter-of-fact way.
From the highway north of Mount You, they headed to Hakurou. Before getting to Hakurou, they left the highway and took a side road along the river towards what had once been Tetsui. Carts and wagons bearing white flags joined the procession of people.
Taoists dressed in white accompanied the well-stocked wagons. The word going around was that Sekirin Temple was restoring the Taoist facilities in Ryuukei. They’d been wrecked during the eradication campaigns and abandoned for years. Now with the support of Gamon Temple in Hakurou, it was being brought back to life on a bigger scale than before.
At the same time, temples further to the east were also being renovated. Crews of laborers and tradesmen traveled with carts full of supplies. Refugees with a keen eye for people on the move added to their number. Refugees gathered in places with large migrant populations. As best they could tell, the cities ruled by the land gangs weren’t turning people away like they used to.
Along with the return of Sekirin Temple, rumors circulated among the needy and destitute that the gates were no longer closed to outsiders like themselves. Go there and they might find a place to live. And with all those people congregating in one place, jobs should be in the offing. Merchants with a nose for ground-floor business opportunities soon joined the throngs.
The castle at the heart of Seisai got put to the torch six years before and then collapsed during the troubles with the land gangs. The local gang set up shop in an inn a stone’s throw from the ruins. But unlike before, travelers who approached the city were no longer driven off without a second thought. While anybody entering Seisai proper would have to prove their bona fides, no roadblocks prevented anybody from moving into the towns and villages around Seisai.
First the troubles and then the eradication campaigns had reduced most of them to ruins. Yet some structures remained intact and people were living in them. The surrounding fields were buried under the snow but the access roads showed signs of being used and maintained.
Nobody in the capital of Bun Province paid attention to these movements. Or rather, some people noticed but nobody put the pieces together. They had long ago written off the city of Seisai. It officially didn’t exist and they had no reason to change their minds. If refugees and displaced persons were congregating there, that had nothing to do with them either, because as far as the administration was concerned, those people didn’t exist either.
“Something must be going on there,” observed a provincial official.
“Because the land gangs don’t have the power they used to,” Tonkou explained. “The gangs that flocked to Kan’you Mountain are down on their luck too. They don’t have the resources to control the area like they once did.”
The official nodded with a knowing look and lapsed into silence.
“Should we really just leave them alone?” someone else asked, glancing around at the faces of the surrounding civil servants.
“The province lord says he doesn’t care.”
That answer as well was met with silence.
“In the meantime, the land gangs may well abandon Kan’you Mountain and disappear into the countryside. When that happens, the town and villages in the region should spring back to life. We don’t need to worry about acting on any of these rumors until we start receiving petitions to revive the rishi, proof that actual redevelopment is going on.”
Tonkou indirectly circulated this opinion among the provincial ministers and in time it became official policy.
The province lord himself had nothing to say on the subject.
Everything was done behind the scenes. Stand out and become the center of attention and the result would be exile or getting struck down by the illness.
“Long story short,” Tonkou said to Risai, “I don’t see the provincial government taking any action until spring.”
Risai had paid Hoyou a visit to pick up some goods. “That’s an optimistic way of seeing things,” she said with a wry smile.
“What I’m saying is, it can’t get anything done. No government functionally exists at the provincial level. To be fair, you could probably say that of Tai as a whole.”
Risai nodded. Here and there around Bun Province, refugees with no roof over their heads were still freezing to death. Even among those who managed to avoid that fate, more than a few of the young and elderly were losing fingers and toes to frostbite. Anyone with the resources moved to warmer climes by the time winter arrived in earnest. Many of those remained to face the harsh cold of Bun Province were the poorest of the poor.
“Even so,” Hoyou said with a grim look, “can we trust the kingdom not to notice so many people on the move? The puppet province lord is little more than an invalid these days, but the kingdom has its own eyes and ears.”
Tonkou assured her, “From all outward appearances, they are only part of the preparations for the restoration of the Sekirin Temple facilities in Ryuukei and Seisai and the construction of the Ordination Hall in Ryuukei.”
Labor migrations had long taken place during the winter months in Bun Province. Prodigious amounts of snow fell in the region between Mount You and the northern coast of Bun Province. Villages were frequently swallowed up by the snowpack, though before that happened, the whole village often packed up and moved elsewhere.
During the winter, the sight of evacuees fleeing the heavy snowfall and avalanches and refugees escaping the poverty and destitution, along with seasonal workers and other economic nomads traveling to and fro on the highways in ragtag groups, was one the people of Bun Province were well used to.
“Moreover, the kingdom has plenty of its own problems. To start with, we’ve heard they’re at their wits’ end dealing with repeated outbreaks of violence in I Province.”
“So they’re still holding out,” Hoyou said, half in admiration, half in despair.
Risai said, “I thought the resistance in I Province had been all but rooted out.”
“The protests dying down for a spell only meant they’d gone underground and were gathering their strength for the next revolt. The fierceness of the purges in I Province resulted in ever more anger against Asen roiling beneath the surface.” Tonkou then added, “Besides which, more and more people are moving south.”
“There are rumors that a better life is waiting for you if you can get yourself to Zui Province. They say Zui Province has opened the warehouses and are distributing provisions to the needy. The rika have expanded their roles to accommodate the ill, along with elderly and children.”
“Oh, really?” Risai murmured to herself.
She couldn’t decide whether that was good news or not. The people being saved was certainly a good thing. But she couldn’t tell out from here what was really going on, except that she sensed it was not unrelated to rumors of Asen’s enthronement. In any case, she was thankful for this increased activity all across Bun Province. As a result, Sougen could mobilize the forces he had amassed without attracting too much attention.
“We can only hope that people moving south find the help they need,” Risai said.
Tonkou said with a wry smile, “If the province had the ability to make a difference in that regard, I’d only wonder if it would only put us in a more precarious position. It is a matter of considerable concern for me.”
Within the walls of the provincial castle, Tonkou was hard at work sowing confusion among the ranks. A general would get the job done faster, but recruiting a high-ranked officer was also a good way to paint a target on his back. He instead focused his attention on the centurions and battalion commanders.
Unfamiliar as she was with the inner workings of the Bun provincial government, Risai didn’t feel it was her place to level any criticism. In any case, little by little, Tonkou was adding allies to the cause. Altogether, he’d amassed the equivalent of a division. However, as they did not all answer to a single chain of command, as a unified fighting force, these were less than reliable numbers.
“We’ll just have to do our best with what we’ve got on hand. Do you think you’re going to have enough manpower to take over Kan’you Mountain?”
Risai answered Tonkou’s question with a grim smile. “Like you, all we can do is give it our best effort.”
With the number of their brothers in arms growing by the day, and help from Kyuusan, they were approaching the troop strength that would bring such a campaign into realm of possibility. When it came to the landslide in question, they were whittling down the possible locations and getting closer to the point where they could start working on the access tunnels.
“But we are still unable to get a picture of Kan’you Mountain in its entirety.”
“I have indirectly made my own inquiries among the civil servants within the provincial government and have come across anyone who knows what’s really going on there. In any case, it’s a mountain with a long history, where miners with their knowledge of the gemstone fountains rule the roost.”
In order to protect their claims, miners went out of their way to hide the location of the gemstone fountains and the access tunnels. As a result, no one person had a good grasp of the big picture.
“We await any good news,” Tonkou said and Risai nodded.
“So next you’ll be hanging out with the miners for a while?” Hoyou said with a smile. “We appreciate all the trouble you are going to.”
Risai said, “As long as we’ve got a goal and a way to get it done, it’s no trouble at all. We’re grateful for everything you’ve done for us, Hoyou.”
“Men and matériel are all the thanks I need. I suppose there’s no need to send Risai into the tunnels too.”
Risai laughed. “Good to know. I can’t imagine I’d be of much use when it comes to digging holes.”
Risai left Gamon Temple on Hien. When on her own with Hien, she traveled by air. Under better conditions, Hien could cover the distance between Seisai and Gamon Temple in half a day. But now she had to be conscious of who might be watching from below and couldn’t freely fly through outskirts of Hakurou. Taking all the necessary precautions and picking the right roads to follow, it took almost a day.
She got back to Seisai toward evening, the scattered points of light glowing in the falling dusk. A square of cloth was hanging in main room of the new safehouse.
Sougen glanced over his shoulder. “You’re back. How is Hoyou doing?”
“Same as always. By the way, what is that?”
She meant the simple sheet of white cloth. Whatever it was, they must be making do with whatever they had on hand. A gray line was drawn along the lower half of the square sheet, apparently with a brush dipped in diluted ink. It very much resembled the character for “one.”
“Welcome back,” Seishi said with a smile.
“The white Hakushi flags came in a crate of supplies from Gamon Temple, except we’re hearing complaints that pretending to be Hakushi just doesn’t sit right.”
“Well, yes, I can see that.”
People and goods were flowing into Seisai in large quantities. The ostensible reason was the restoration of a Taoist temple in the Sekirin Temple circuit, so naturally they flew the Hakushi. The white banners had long been a prized symbol of those affiliated with Sekirin Temple. But to Risai and her allies, the white banners carried a different meaning. They expressed the gratitude of the people of Tetsui for Gyousou’s moral majesty.
Although not a great many, there were those who caviled at raising the Hakushi banner.”
“That’s why we won’t be,” Sougen said. “We’re adding a few touches in order to set ours apart, something that conveys the message that while we aren’t Hakushi, we strive for the same goals. We believe it’s an approach Hakushi can get on board with.”
The wry smile on Kenchuu’s face said that regardless of whether they were in wholehearted agreement, at least they weren’t going to oppose the effort.
“Sure,” Risai said. They didn’t have much in the way of materials or funds, so making do with what was on hand should more than suffice. “Works for me. You can’t beat clean and simple.”
A delighted Kyoshi slapped Houto on the back. “You came up with this idea, didn’t you, Houto?”
Houto nodded with a touch of self-consciousness. “I thought it was a bit on the rough side, but Sougen-sama said it was just right for the purpose.”
Risai took a closer look at the banner.
Since leaving Sekijou, she and Houto and Kyoshi had been together for a long time now. Kiitsu had lent a hand, and Seishi joined their band along with Yotaku. And yet they numbered a mere six individuals. The unadorned banner rather resembled their old selves. A bit of nostalgia couldn’t help welling up.
“I really like it,” Yotaku said, setting a cup of tea in front of Risai. She had the sense that Yotaku too was feeling those same deep emotions.
“We arrived in Koutaku like shipwrecked sailors washed ashore. There were only four of us,” Sougen mused aloud, “and two horses. “We’ve since grown to a scale where we need our own banners to tell us apart.”
Risai nodded. Of course. They shared similar sentiments, having started out with no money, no connections, and no labor force to draw on. Like the Hakushi, all they had was hope. But they forged ever forward on their solidary journeys, the threads of good will from the people they’d met along the way weaving the tapestry that was their lives today.
These thoughts heavy on her mind, an exuberant cry from outside the house brought Risai back to the present. A contingent of mounted soldiers had arrived from Koutaku on horseback
“This town is more spread out than we expected. It took us a while to track you people down.”
Taking those words under advisement, Risai and the other planted the white and gray banners around the town. With the safehouse they’d borrowed from Kyuusan already packed to the gills, they had to lease the residences next door and behind them as well.