20-7 With the numbers now on their side, Risai and her allies pressed home their advantage. They spend the next day mopping up the remnants of Asen’s army and taking prisoner any survivors. The Imperial Army was smaller than they expected. Perhaps they’d only had been after the land gangs all along. At the very least, it appeared that Asen was none the wiser about their presence there.
They employed all the means at their disposal in their sweep of the battlefield, though it remained pretty much a given that this remained their fight to lose. Asen was bound to learn at some point that there were forces hostile to his government in Bun Province. However, by the time Asen mustered his forces, the Black Flags would have strengthened their ranks as well. Slowly but surely, the odds were tipping in their favor.
Late that night, their prisoners of war in tow, Risai and her soldiers returned to the ruins of a city in the foothills of Kan’you Mountain.
Once home to the shire castle, the city of Saiho had been destroyed and deserted during the eradication campaigns. Little remained of the walls and ramparts, and only a few buildings remained standing. When the Black Flags mobilized to support the land gangs, they set up a base camp in Saiho. The thinking was, if they could hold their ground here against the Imperial Army, the land gangs could escape to Seisai and the abandoned mines in and around Kan’you Mountain.
Even if the Imperial Army overran their positions, there were no civilians to get caught up in the fighting. They stretched tarps across the remains of the ramparts and the still standing walls of what used to be homes and managed to make the place at least livable. An intact section of the council house became their headquarters.
“Looks like you won.”
Sougen greeted Risai in the dilapidated structure. He’d made his way here from Seisai.
“One way or another.”
They cheerfully clapped each other on the back. That was when one of Sougen’s assistants tugged aside the tarp that took the place of the missing door and entered the room. He was holding a sword.
“Where did that sword come from?”
“It belongs to one of the prisoners.”
Except this particular prisoner fought against the Imperial Army. He helped save the families of the land gangs fleeing to safety. He wasn’t their enemy. But he didn’t belong to one of the land gangs either and nobody under Risai’s command could place him. He refused to identify himself. He did not resist when they took him into custody, and when they asked for his weapon, he handed it over.
“Being an enemy of Asen doesn’t necessarily make him an ally.”
But his sword was so unusual, the assistant thought he should bring this particular prisoner to their attention.
Risai took the sword and examined it with a quizzical expression. The hilt and scabbard were so badly marred that it was hard to imagine what the sword had looked like in pristine condition. Still, she could tell it was a fine piece of work. Not a luxury but a weapon crafted with great care. A small bell was tied to the worn and faded scabbard like a good luck charm. The bell didn’t make a sound and perhaps had been filled with wadding.
Puzzling over the out-of-place ornament, Risai pinned the scabbard against her side, wrapped her hand around the hilt, and drew out the sword. What emerged, in stark contrast to the scabbard, was a magnificent blade. The brilliant blue steel bore not a single nick or blemish, so clean and clear it cast off a white glow.
“This is—!” Risai exclaimed.
In her surprise, she lost her hold on the scabbard and it clattered to the ground. Sougen also raised a cry and jumped to his feet like he’d been launched out of a catapult.
“That is Cold Jade!”
Risai tried to explain to the rest of them but couldn’t find the words. Her whole body shook so badly she could hardly breath, let alone speak.
Cold Jade was the sword Emperor Kyou had presented to Gyousou so long ago.
“Where—where is this prisoner?”
The prisoner sat in the gloomy tent. He was leaning back against the charred and blackened stone wall. A ripped and torn cloak covered most of his face. The course weave of the filthy cloth of the hood covered his eyes. Risai couldn’t make out his appearance, except that his sunken cheeks were as pale as candle wax.
Risai peered at him from a tear in the tent. She drew a steady breath. Then holding the torch, she stepped inside. Hearing the sound, the prisoner barely moved. He only glanced over his shoulder at her. She looked back at him, desperately comparing every aspect of that face with the one etched into her memories—the bridge of the nose, the line of the jaw, the shape of the mouth.
Before she could utter the obvious conclusion, a small smile creased that mouth. “Well, I’ll be! If it’s not Risai.”
Risai’s only reply was an audible gasp. His voice was hoarse and faint but there could be no doubt.
As she struggled to get hold of her senses, the prisoner shifted his gaze. “Oh, and Sougen too.”
From behind Risai came a sound akin to a howl. In the same moment she registered it as belonging to Sougen, Sougen ran toward him and fell to his knees like a man falling to the ground.
“Gyousou-sama! Your Highness!”
The prisoner removed the hood from his head, revealing his unmistakable crimson eyes. Lifting up the cloak, the white hair spilled out.
Risai stepped forward, feeling as if she were treading on a cloud. Then the strength went out of her legs. She sat down on the ground. Her head slumped to her chest. She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t breathe.
We searched for you. We knew you were alive. We believed you would return to us some day. No matter how much time it took, no matter how much suffering it required, we would find you.
“Is there something wrong with your eyes?” Sougen asked at length.
Those words brought Risai back to life. She took a breath. She raised her head. Gyousou squinted back at them.
“The light stings my eyes. That’s all. It’s gotten better of late.”
At the sound of his voice, somebody hastily extinguished the torch, leaving a candle as the only source of light, and casting the space into shadows.
“Sorry about that,” Gyousou said. He directed a consoling gaze at Risai. “It appears that you have met with hardships of your own.”
For a moment, Risai didn’t understand what he was referring to and then realized he meant her arm.
“Oh, it’s not that bad. I’ve gotten used to it.”
“I see,” he said, his voice was soft and low. “I must be hard to listen to. It isn’t easy getting the words out. I guess this is what happens when you’re shut away for a while with no one to talk to.” He smiled to himself before glancing up at Sougen. “Well, there’s a look I haven’t seen on your face before.”
Sougen quickly covered his face with his sleeve so Risai couldn’t see the expression he was wearing.
“I believe you go by Seishi. And next to you is Oukou. Risai’s retainers.” He added with a gentle grin, “Like a couple of kids.”
Risai glanced over her shoulder at them. Seishi and Oukou had their arms around each other’s shoulders. The sight of them blubbering like children reminded Risai to dry her own face.
“I was worried about you all.” Gyousou cast his gaze around the tent. “It is reassuring to see so many of you alive and well.”
“That is what I wanted to say to you!” Sougen slid forward on his knees and grasped Gyousou’s hands. “It is so good to have you back with us again.”
From far away, the shouts of exultation echoed through the air.
Alone in the dark cellar, Yuushou raised his head. A big commotion stirred the air outside. The late hour notwithstanding, the sounds of celebration filled the night.
He could hardly blame them. They fought and defeated the Imperial Army.
Yuushou sat on the stone floor. The building was once a storehouse or cellar. The room was fairly large and covered with cobblestones. Most of the roof above had fallen in. The only light came from a single candle, making it difficult to see any details, but the stones appeared to have been recovered from a river bed. The smooth edges of the stones notwithstanding, the mortared cobbles and boulders heaped together into a rising wall shouldn’t be impossible to climb.
Except for the shackles binding his hands.
The melting snow dripped from the shattered ceiling and trickled from cracks in the walls and pooled on the flagstone floor. Though he’d tried to find a dry place to sit down, his clothes were already soaked.
Nodding off from the accumulated fatigue and feelings of emptiness, and listening to the commotion around him almost despite himself, the night air brought to his ears voices entirely different than the clamor from before. In the hushed tones used when passing on information of a confidential nature came the words, His Highness.
The speaker must be standing next to the cellar. Yuushou heard him clearly. Then a stifled shout, not very loud and so less distinct, but Yuushou managed to make out. He’s alive! He’s returned!
Maybe Gyousou had joined forces with the land gangs, after all. The reinforcements arriving at the last minute and in the right numbers appeared to include remnants of the Imperial Army. They must have become aware of Gyousou’s existence. Yuushou didn’t grasp the relationship between the reinforcements, the land gangs, and Gyousou, but he understood the emotions of people around him.
The liege they thought was dead, that they had not seen for long seven years, had returned. The great feelings of elation such a reunion must arouse in his followers.
Yuushou was struck by a sensation that could only be described as envy. He had to wonder whether he would react the same if he found himself in their shoes. That sense of dissatisfaction with Ukou’s presence since they left Kouki had only grown the further away from Kouki they traveled, as had his unease toward Asen.
The land gangs occupied Kan’you Mountain. The Imperial Army fought to drive them from the territory. It was a perfectly logical course of action, Yuushou believed. He couldn’t carry out his orders as long as they were there. They had to be removed as a matter of course. He had no problem accepting the inevitability of fighting and killing those arrayed against them in order to achieve their objectives. It was what a soldier did.
But as the battle progressed, he could barely restrain himself from screaming, “This is the last thing we should be doing right now!”
Just because the forces facing them belonged to the land gangs didn’t make them enemies worth fighting. He felt it in his gut. He felt he should tell all of them to keep their distance from Kan’you Mountain. Even if the Imperial Army, and Ukou, and the Provincial Guard appealed to him directly, they should on no occasion ride forward. Ride forward and only death awaited them.
He imagined Asen simply disappearing off the map for seven long years. Would he really go searching for him? Would he rejoice like them when they met again?
Yuushou hung his head and grasped his knees with his shackled hands. “I probably would look for him,” he muttered.
In the end, he would. Asen was Yuushou’s liege. And when their paths finally crossed, he would celebrate the reunion. Of course, he would. But deep in his heart, he could never say for certain. He would be happy, yes, but would he rejoice? His mind remained stubbornly unsettled on the question.
It was a good thing he lost. Being defeated on the battlefield and taken captive meant he wasn’t able to carry out his duties as a retainer. But that was good too. He didn’t know what would come of him after this and he didn’t care. He’d been given his orders and did his best to faithfully carry them out. He’d done his best and failed.
He could live with that.
“This is Kyoshi. And next to him, Houto and Kiitsu.”
Brimming with happiness, Risai introduced the three of them to Gyousou. Anxious about Risai’s welfare and that of her men, they’d made the journey from Seisai to Saihou.
The meeting was held in a dilapidated house that was perhaps the least appropriate venue for an audience with the emperor. Whatever blankets and straw mats they had on hand covered the shattered windows and doors. The roof was barely holding together and the ceiling was spotted with water stains. Melting snow ran down the adobe walls.
Even in such a dismal setting, the three could hardly contain their emotions. Among them, Houto appeared the most profoundly shaken. The normally nonchalant man stood there like a statue, taking deep breath after deep breath.
“Ah,” Risai said with a smile. “Houto hails from South Ryou Prefecture.”
“You don’t say!” Gyousou looked at Houto with keen interest. “South Ryou!”
The number of lamps in the room were kept to a bare minimum to spare Gyousou’s eyes, so it was hard to make out Houto’s expression as he struggled form a coherent answer.
Seven years in the dark.
Risai asked Gyousou about the circumstances that brought him here. Gyousou, in turn, wanted to know more about how they were doing. The questions flew back and forth, filling in the lost time. Though Risai couldn’t be happier, Gyousou’s condition came as a shock.
Seven years by himself in the dark with never enough to eat. The only light from a campfire, and there too burning with a low flame to preserve precious resources. What kind of a life had he lived, feeling his way through the darkness for all that time? With no one to talk to, and surrounded by so much silence that his vocal cords withered such that he could not raise his voice.
As a soldier, Risai knew how to bear up under solitude. She’d gone through training on how to survive by herself if separated from her army. Nevertheless, the thought of spending seven years alone in the depths of Kan’you Mountain made her blood run cold. So she’d been all the more surprised at the nonchalant way he carried himself. After all that time, it was as if he’d been a part of the Imperial Army until a few days before
In particular, his body had not wasted away. To a certain extent, that stood to reason. Living deep underground, he had to do all the heavy lifting himself. Still, only to a point could the protective powers of the amulet he wore around his wrist compensate for the lack of food. Compared to his past self, his frame was markedly more slender. His cheeks were sunken and his skin had paled to an unhealthy degree. Little strength remained in his voice and he constantly narrowed his eyes. The fingernails of both hands were bent and twisted from repeated damage.
She didn’t see the man once brimming with drive and ambition. He appeared instead strangely calm and at peace with himself.
Gyousou and Houto softly exchanged words for a while. Gyousou then turned his attention to Kyoshi.
“A truly inexcusable fate befell Zui’un Temple. You have done an admirable job of carrying on.
Tai owes you and your colleagues a debt of gratitude that can never be fully repaid. Very few people will ever know and fully appreciate the price you paid, but on their behalf, I offer you my thanks.”
Kyoshi answered with a deep bow. “Such praise is more than I deserve.”
“To Kiitsu as well. The beneficence of Jokan-dono made this all possible, but I’ve heard he showed that same kindness to Risai and her comrades. I am grateful from the bottom of my heart.”
“Oh, my—I—no—” Kiitsu’s flustered reaction was unexpectedly amusing.
“I should thank Jokan-dono in person. But it doesn’t look like I’m going to have the time. Please convey to him my best regards. Once it becomes possible, I will most definitely pay him a visit.”
“That is already far more than we deserve.”
Risai flashed a smile at the befuddled Kiitsu. She said to Gyousou, “As we discussed earlier, I think you should stay here tonight. Tomorrow, we will go to Rokou, and after that, repair to En.”
By all rights, they should return to Seisai and make an appearance for their many compatriots. But unfortunately not everyone watching them there could be trusted. And so she arrived at the decision to travel straight to Rokou. Launching on their journey directly shouldn’t be a problem, but Gyousou and Risai’s men could both benefit from a bit of rest. They’d had little time to relax since rushing to the battlefield from Anpuku.
Following her explanation, Sougen added, “We’ll be putting together a security detail to accompany us. I’ve asked Risai to be in charge. The fact of the matter is, Risai is the only one among us who has met the Imperial En.”
“I’d like Kyoshi and Houto to come along too,” Risai said, turning to them. “The two of them have been a great help for a long time now. Their assistance had no small part in making possible the return of Your Highness. I think they have faced more than their fair share of dangers a deserve a return to the lives they used to live where they live in peace and safety.”
“Thank you,” the two chorused.
Sougen nodded as well. “Presently, the safest places to depart for En are from Ba Province, Kou Province, and Ran Province. Ba Province is the closest, though enemy forces are the weakest in Ran. However, Touka and Bokuyou Mountain are located in Kou Province. I’d like the two of you to accompany us that far.”
“To Touka?” Kyoshi asked, the delighted expression on his face making clear how pleasantly surprised he was at the request.
“Given the difficulty of the task ahead of us, we’ll make Touka our base camp and then climb Bokuyou Mountain to the Sea of Clouds in one go.”
“Much appreciated,” Kyoshi said with a bow.
Houto countered with a shake of his head, “I am sure the people of Touka will treat such a visit as great reward, but wouldn’t the risk be all the greater there? Mount You has a Ryou’un Mountain. What about heading out across the Sea of Clouds from there?”
“As you may be aware, the Ryou’un Mountain in the You range has never been developed. In order to get to the summit above the Sea of Clouds, there has to be a passageway. There is no such passageway in the mountains of the You range.”
“So that’s what it comes down to, eh?” Houto said with a wry smile. “I thought I was familiar with all the trails in the northern quarter, but it looks like there are a few more things I don’t know. Still, are there any other Ryou’un Mountain closer than Bokuyou Mountain?”
“We have heard of them but there is no way to know if they are usable or not. When a mountain has not been explored for many years, the trails can get blocked. Unsavory groups may occupy the territory. The Provincial Guard keeps an eye on any Ryou’un Mountains near a provincial capital, putting them out of reach. There’s no way to tell if a mountain is usable without seeing it in person. That makes Bokuyou Mountain our best bet. We know it is accessible. After talking it over with Risai, that’s the decision we made.”
“Understood,” Houto said, content with the outcome of the discussion. “I’ll see to the accommodations. The two of you and a few others. I’ll leave Risai and His Highness in your capable hands.”