fter a welcome break in the weather, winter returned for a spell. Snow was in the air on the afternoon Yuushou arrived at Rin’u. The column was shrouded in snow and ice, as if the infantry and cavalry were wearing coats fashioned from strands of white gossamer.
They joined up with the Provincial Guard at Rin’u. There the regimental commander of the Bun Provincial Army of the Center informed them that Kan’you Mountain was occupied by the land gangs.
“The land gangs?”
“Yes. A faction led by one Kyuusan has controlled Kan’you Mountain for several years now. They’ve sealed off the surrounding areas.”
Yuushou furrowed his brows. “How many men are we talking about?”
“Hard to say for certain, but we’re told less than regimental strength.”
“If those are all the numbers they can muster, why does the Provincial Guard allow them the run of the place?”
This news rocked Yuushou back on his heels. Imperial land belonged to the kingdom and the people. It was not a prize that any one group could grab and lay exclusive claim to. Especially when a land gang was doing the grabbing and claiming. How could such a state of affairs be tolerated?
“Well, um, I guess because no one issued orders to drive them off the mountain,” the commander stammered. “For good or ill, the eradication campaigns left the region unpopulated in the first place. If civilians were being driven out, the Provincial Guard would certainly step into help, but without any such requests—”
Yuushou sighed. Rumors said the province lord was ill and disinclined to do anything to change the status quo. This malady of apathy had spread throughout Tai. Afflicted officials abandoned their duties. Afraid of taking the initiative and possibly offending their layabout superiors, their subordinates followed suit.
“In any case, station a battalion here in Rin’u,” Yuushou ordered.
By all rights, he should leave everything in the hands of the Provincial Guard. But with the province lord acting strangely, he wasn’t ready to place that much trust in the forces under his supposed command. The soldiers in Rin’u were primary responsible for handling logistics and maintaining the transport hubs. Those supply lines getting severed could, in a worst-case scenario, reduce the soldiers to scavenging for food.
“With forces at less than regimental strength, the land gangs don’t pose a threat and aren’t our enemies in any case. We will continue our march north.”
No matter what, Yuushou had to press onto Kan’you Mountain, hoping that the land gangs would take a look at the army under his command and run in the other direction. If they didn’t, they’d have a fight on their hands. He communicated this to his staff and advised them to remain vigilant and ready for either outcome.
On the morning of the next day, they resumed their march north along the highway.
Before the Imperial Army set up camp, reports reached Kyuusan about unsettling developments in Rin’u. Agents working undercover on the streets of Rin’u observed the Provincial Guard mustering its troops. Now on the alert, they gathered more information and began surveilling the roads from Zui Province. That day, a runner brought news of the Imperial Army’s arrival in Rin’u. A single regiment of the Palace Guard, with the Provincial Army of the Center in a support role.
Kyuusan could not figure out what these troop movements intended to accomplish.
Given a single regiment of twenty-five hundred troops, it hadn’t marched all the way here to subjugate the land gangs, nor was this a renewal of the extermination campaigns. More like a scouting party. But that didn’t make any sense either. According to his spies, the army deployed at Rin’u appeared to be moving north. Rin’u was simply a stop along the way.
Moving north to do what? There was as yet no proof they had their eye on the land gangs that occupied the northern territories in this part of Bun Province.
“I don’t think this is another eradication campaign,” Kyuusan said with a shake of his head.
The scale of the operation was too small. Or they had underestimated the size of the opposing forces.
Standing next to him, Sekihi asked, “What do you think we should do?”
“Well, for the time being, I’m praying they didn’t come here to get rid of us. Because if they did, we’ve got no chance of winning in the long term.”
They had no realistic hope of going toe-to-toe with the Imperial Army. While it was possible for them to not lose, they were not going to win outright. Even following a strategy of fighting to not lose, they would inevitably take a lot of casualties. After that, disguised as civilians, they’d mingle among them in the cities and the fields, attacking the Imperial Army at times and in places of their choosing.
All they could do at that point was repeatedly attack and retreat and drag the engagements out for so long that their opponents would finally give up and wash their hands of the whole thing. In such a situation, Kyuusan had to wonder how many of his followers would hang in there over the long run. If they did and managed to survive, they could say they didn’t lose.
Except he couldn’t rule out the possibility that the Imperial Army intended to wipe them out from the start. With that danger in mind, they’d be better off abandoning the fight and running for their lives. Or rather, refuse to engage them in the first place. But going down that road would ruin their reputations. The other land gangs would hold them in contempt. And the miners and civilians alike would no longer quail in their presence.
They’d no longer be viable as one of the land gangs.
“What if we simply let them walk on by?”
“We can’t afford to do that. Our claim to Kan’you Mountain rests entirely on controlling who comes and who goes. Anyone granted free passage by threat of force alone could just as easily go on to take the whole mountain from us.”
Recently to the west in Seisai, people had arrived from outside the region. But they were engaged in the restoration of the Sekirin branch temples. Kyuusan had granted passage to the White Flags for a long time now. It was widely known that they were on good terms with Sekirin Temple, putting that situation in an altogether different category.
It’s tough being a member of the land gangs, Kyuusan thought at times like this. A gang that couldn’t throw its weight around at will wouldn’t last long in this day and age.
“Well, in any case, we should reach out to Risai.”
“Do you think she’ll lend us a hand?”
Not bloody likely, Kyuusan thought to himself. He said aloud, “I wouldn’t bet on a former general cozying up to the land gangs.” He added with a grin, “We’re hardly brothers in arms. Thanks to the force of circumstance, we ended up in the same boat together. It’d be over for them too if Asen caught wind of what they’re up to here.”
Shokyuu asked hesitantly, “Are you saying that if we asked for help, they wouldn’t offer any?”
“Don’t make us sound like such a pitiful bunch,” Kyuusan scolded. “If word got out that the mighty land gangs of Kan’you Mountain were bending a knee to their once bitter foes and pleading for a lifeline, we’d never hear the end of it.”
“I lent Risai a hand on a whim, not because I was looking for a quid pro quo. I’ll let the conditions of that whim define the limits of our cooperation. When I set them up in Seisai, she said she’d help evacuate the woman and children should worst come to worst. So we’ll leave it at that.”
Sekihi nodded. “Knowing Risai, she’ll follow through on that promise.”
“We won’t ask for anything more. I’ve got no desire to either. I don’t know if that’s the right thing to do, but they’re doing all they can to take Tai back from Asen. If they succeed, then we end up the enemy.”
“We’re the enemy?”
“Of course!” Kyuusan laughed.
The land gangs were the bad guys, after all, brigands who lived outside the law. Once the rule of law was restored to the kingdom, it’d be the job of Risai and her colleagues to rein them in and bring them to justice. And as long as they numbered themselves among the land gangs, it’d be the job of Kyuusan and his colleagues to resist.
They were incompatible by nature. Natural enemies.
“As long as they have every intention of taking back the kingdom, they won’t be getting chummy with their future foes. And neither will we.”
Sekihi and Shokyuu exchanged forlorn looks.
“Oh, don’t give me the sad faces. Well, you never know. The Imperial Army could be after Risai too. We should let them know the troops arrived in Rin’u.”
“She’ll owe us one after this,” Shokyuu said enthusiastically.
“Don’t be silly. The Imperial Army targeting Risai doesn’t mean we’re not next on the list. If they don’t make it clear they’ve got nothing to do with us while they’re running away, we’ll be in deep trouble too.”
“I’m sure they know,” Sekihi said.
“Yeah, probably. For the time being, just to make sure we don’t get blindsided no matter what happens, let’s move the women and children out of Sokou. In the off chance there is an attack,
man the ramparts to buy us some time.”
“Should they try to hold the castle too?”
“Not in Sokou. Defend the ramparts and buy time. If the Imperial Army storms the city, retreat to Anpuku. Outfit the castle in Anpuku and be prepared to hold out long enough to open a safe escape route for the women and children.”
On the third day out from Rin’u, Yuushou and his regiment arrived in the vicinity of Sokou, said to be within the sphere of influence of the land gangs. From a distance, they could see that the gates to the city were closed and the parapets along the ramparts were occupied by armed men amidst clusters of catapults. This was no ineffectual and disorderly mob.
“How should we proceed?” his retainers asked.
Yuushou said, “We might as well ask that they not obstruct the way. But I don’t imagine they will politely withdraw.”
“And if they don’t?”
“One way or the other, we’ll have to clear Kan’you Mountain and its environs of the land gangs.”
Ukou interrupted at that point. “If they get in the way, kill them. If they beg for their lives, take them prisoner and send them into the tunnels.”
And then kill them once the job is done.
Yuushou took in the cold smile on Ukou’s face with an admonishing glance. “If they want to run away, let them. They simply don’t have the numbers to regroup for a return engagement. All that matters now is maintaining an unobstructed corridor from Rin’u to Kan’you Mountain.”
Clearly peeved that Yuushou ignored his proposal, Ukou sniffed, “Naive.”
“Nobody ordered us to engage the land gangs. We’re here to complete the reconnaissance of Kan’you Mountain.”
“Thinking you’ll be fine just following orders is the way of the coward. The only way to prove the effectiveness of an armed force is a high body count.”
Yuushou looked straight at Ukou. “Since when did I start taking orders from you?”
Ukou clucked his tongue in disapproval.
“Don’t forget that insubordination is a court-martial offense and will be punished severely.”
“Hmph,” Ukou snorted and walked off.
“Why would Asen-sama give a man like that such important responsibilities?” Chouten asked. Chouten was one of Yuushou’s retainers.
“Well—” was the sum of Yuushou’s answer to that question. “For now, dispatch an envoy. Tell them if they open the gates, we will take no further action. If they do not, have our air calvary attack the ramparts and destroy the catapults, after which the infantry will breach the gates en masse and secure our flanks. Then mounted soldiers will storm the castle, with the air cavalry offering support.”
The messenger ran up to Kyuusan. “The Imperial Army sent an envoy. They are ordering us to open the gates.”
Kyuusan rejected the offer out of hand. “Tell him no. This is my home ground and my territory.”
“Let’s just go ahead and open the gates,” Shokyuu said in a said voice.
“If we don’t, they are sure to storm the place. That’s the Imperial Army out there. The one thing we can count on is a whole bunch of us ending up dead. Is there anything on Kan’you Mountain really worth the bother? At the end of the day, the mines are all played out. There’s no good living to be made here anymore. Didn’t you say so yourself? It’s a problem of time.”
“Exactly.” Kyuusan smiled. “That is exactly what I’m saying. We’ve got to buy some time.” He glanced around the room. “Listen up, everybody. Square off against the Imperial Army and our chances of winning are slim. When they show up, we’re over. If we try to hold our ground here, we’re all goners. But if we turn tail and run, we’d lose any standing we had among the land gangs. Just another bunch of refugees living hand to mouth and trying to eke out a living.”
Kyuusan paused for a moment to let that image sink in.
“Except this time around, they’re offering us free passage. To be honest, if we could simply pick up where we left off, I’d take them up on the offer. But if we did, we’d be the beaten dogs who cowered before the Imperial Army before scampering away. No one around here would think twice about invading the territory of a beaten dog. Before long, every lowlife in the province would be showing up steal the mountain away from us.”
Boisterous voices erupted around him. “And we’d give them a beating they’d never forget!”
“Yeah, we would. We’d pound the living daylights out of them! But before long, we’d be wasting all of our time fighting every upstart gang in the province. I think we all got better things to do than that. At the bare minimum, we’ve got to bloody a few noses before heading for the hills. First, we have to make sure the elderly and any wounded get a head start, along with the women and children.”
“Well, one scratch from the likes of them and there will be plenty of payback coming,” said the surly guy standing next to him.
In a single motion, Kyuusan turned and knocked him clean off his feet. “Listen, if you can’t take as good as you give, you got no business in the land gangs. Now is not the time for vendettas or getting even. Sometimes you just gotta let the punch land. Sure, if you bow and scrape like a good refugee, nobody’s gonna hit you back. But you’re gonna get beat down for the rest of your life. That’s a guarantee.” He glared at the man sprawled at his feet. “As long as that beast is sitting on the throne, a life of getting beaten down is never gonna end.”
Kyuusan couldn’t care less about the kingdom. Having an emperor on the throne meant nothing to him—except when that emperor started messing in his business.
“I’ve got no use for this Asen.” Kyuusan looked around the room. “But Asen’s got his eye on Kan’you Mountain. Not only the women and children, Risai and her crew need time to get away too. I don’t care about this other emperor they revere either, but I’m hoping they will take Asen out.”
The envoy returned to tell Yuushou that the land gang had rejected the offer and would not let them pass.
“What a bunch of fools,” Ukou sneered.
Yuushou ignored him and assembled his four battalion commanders. “We’ve no choice now. They’ve got to be eliminated.”
A squadron of air cavalry left the encampment at once. Though the battle for the ramparts took longer than expected, the skirmishes ended with them seizing and opening the Horse Gate. Mounted soldiers poured into the city. The land gang fought them off at first, but as evening fell, they slipped away into the darkness and retreated out of sight. Once out of the city, they scattered across the countryside.
“So now what?”
“If they come back, they could cause problems. Just in case, station a battalion here. Get in touch with Rin’u and request reinforcements. Once they arrive, follow along behind us.”