21-5 The tail end of the Imperial Army column had left Kouki and was headed for Bun Province when sightings of a man matching Gyousou’s description reached Asen. The reports originated in one of the shire castle towns on the borderlands.
An uprising had taken place and rebels seized the fortifications, or so Asen read into the reports. That being the case, where would it be? Including the Bun Provincial castle, he narrowed down the possibilities to six locations. But according to the eyewitnesses, Gyousou passed through Nanshou, a city in the south of Bun Province, and headed toward Ba Province.
“So they’re setting up a base in Ba Province?”
Except Gyousou’s crew was said to be small in number, making it unlikely they would launch an assault on a castle in Ba Province. Surely they intended to escape to a safe haven somewhere.
“If they had the forces to hit a castle on the spot, Gyousou would hardly be going on alone.”
No matter what castle they targeted, they lacked the manpower to attack and occupy the castle, and then come up with the materiel to support the occupation. Asen had no doubt that capturing a castle was part of the end game but that still had yet to happen. It stood to reason that until the real uprising took place, they would hide Gyousou in a secure location.
“And Ba Province is the last place any of us want to end up.”
As far as Asen knew, Ba Province was a decrepit place. He had little familiarity with the land. Neither did Risai and Gyousou. He’d never heard talk of any connections between them and Ba Province.
“If they were heading through the center of Ba Province, they’d use the South Snow Road.”
Once past Nanshou, they’d move to the south or southwest of Ba Province and then probably to Kou Province. Once through the soaring mountain range along the border, the road branched off in many directions. Tracking them after that would become difficult. They’d have to seize Gyousou before he got clear of the mountains. Even after deploying the air cavalry, there’d be little time to spare.
“’Looks like I’ve got no choice.”
Asen turned his eyes toward the deepening night.
The messenger from the Inner Palace arrived on Kisen’s doorstep around midnight. Asen wished to see him at once.
“His Highness wants to see me?”
“He has a task that needs to get done and none but Kisen-dono would do. Please make haste.”
He hasn’t forgotten about me. That was the first thought on his mind. Asen hadn’t forgotten about them. He hadn’t turned his back on them after all.
“I’ll be there on the double.”
Kisen told him to wait while he got ready. Changing his clothes, he recalled the last time they’d met, Asen’s voice and smile. He also remembered that he’d promised to pay Santou a visit. They had a meeting scheduled with Hinken. The plan was to get together with Santou beforehand and hammer out the details in advance, and then go to see Hinken.
Hinken had probably been summoned by Asen as well. If so, they’d have to call off the meeting. Santou would have been notified about the cancellation by now. Having someone apologize on his behalf would be the polite thing to do. So he sent a runner to explain the situation.
“Thanks for waiting.”
Having put these various odds and ends in order, Kisen returned to the main hall. The messenger stood there as motionless as a mannequin. He turned his emotionless countenance toward Kisen and answered with a mechanical bow.
Santou listened to the runner sent by Kisen. “I see,” he said.
Even though they once counted themselves among Asen’s retainers, they and Hinken had long been treated in an indifferent manner, as if they ceased to exist somewhere along the way. But along with Asen’s recent change in demeanor, it seemed a little light was at last shining on them too.
“Good news,” he told himself, and then thought himself strange for thinking so, even a bit guilty.
As far as Santou was concerned, Asen was his enemy, as should be Asen’s retainers, though Hinken considered him a trusted colleague. He was sure Kisen felt no differently. As the flow of time took one turn and another, a person’s station in life and the stories he told about himself got cast aside like stones along the road.
He was equally confident that neither Hinken nor Kisen had conspired to commit regicide. Asen was the one who hatched the plot and carried it out. His retainers simply went along with their general’s decision. Such a course of action would never have occurred to them otherwise. They did what soldiers were supposed to do. Asen was the one who plotted the crime and saw it through.
However Hinken and Kisen cooperated in its execution, they were only tools Asen happened to have on hand. There was no sense in blaming the tools for what was done with them.
Kisen surely must be pleased with this turn of events, Santou thought to himself as he proceeded to Hinken’s office. Hinken was waiting with his subordinates.
When Hinken asked about Kisen, Santou explained that he’d been summoned directly by Asen.
“A summons from His Highness?”
“So you weren’t informed, General? In that case, this must involve a special set of orders.”
Voicing the obvious aloud left Santou with an uneasy feeling. Kisen was Asen’s retainer, but at the same time, he was also under Hinken’s command, equally one of Hinken’s retainers. Summoning Kisen without going through Hinken didn’t sit well.
Santou said, “I imagine we can expect to get an explanation from Asen-sama.”
Hinken nodded, though with an altogether dissatisfied expression on his face.
It was after one o’clock in the morning when their discussions about the reorganization of the army concluded. The main subject of the meeting was how to proceed now that Yuushou was missing in action, whether they should submit a recommendation to replace him, and if so, who that should be.
That raised the question about how to allocate the soldiers who’d been under Yuushou’s command. One option was to assign them to a new general of the same stripes. However, as his remaining soldiers also included his former retainers, the personnel choice might also run afoul of their personal loyalties, which in turn could affect troop morale.
On the other hand, breaking down Yuushou’s existing forces at the regimental and battalion level and dispersing them among the existing divisions would certainly degrade the unit cohesion and operational effectiveness for the officers and soldiers involved. Those losses could be lessened by keeping the units as large as possible, but that would only make them harder to integrate at the command level.
Hinken said with a sad smile, “Unfortunately, all the worrying in the world will do little to address the problem.”
Santou said, “Any summons sent to Kisen should have included the general as well. Asen-sama wouldn’t sideline the general like that.”
This time Hinken didn’t agree or disagree. He responded with a wan smile, his expression betraying only a momentary look of unease.
Santou said his goodbyes and left the office. Along the way, he parted with his colleagues and returned to his quarters alone. Kisen’s house was along the way, a short jog down a side street. Santou might as well drop by and see how he was doing. If Kisen was home, it’d be a welcome chance to see his bright and cheerful face and congratulate his steadfast, good-natured subordinate in person.
He’d entered the alley to Kisen’s house when he spotted a shadowy figure approaching through the darkness. Based on the height and physique, it must be Kisen.
“Hey, great timing!”
As soon as Santou raised his voice, he was struck by the oddness of the scene. He shut his mouth and gave the silhouette a hard look. The solitary human shadow walked through the dark night, gait uncertain, as if following a meandering line with tottering steps, now and then swaying from one side or the other, almost to the point of falling over.
Santou observed the scene with increasing suspicions. When the curious figure came closer, it was undoubtedly Kisen. Santou thought at first he was drunk, but a closer look revealed that not to be the case. His enervated face tipped backwards and he stared up at the sky with turbid eyes. He took no notice of Santou, even when he was standing right next to him, his hollow eyes only staring at the heavens.
“Kisen?” he called out, but Kisen showed no signs of hearing him. Kisen didn’t look at him but only stumbled along like a soulless marionette. Within arm’s length of Santou, he turned the corner.
“Kisen, what’s going on?”
Santou ran after him and grabbed his shoulder. Kisen didn’t turn around. When Santou gave his hold a firm yank, Kisen finally faced him with hollow eyes, pupils like empty black pits that looked at him and saw nothing.
Gazing into those eyes, a shiver of dread coursed down his spine. He recognized the condition. That sickness. There was no Kisen left inside of Kisen.
At a loss for words, the strength left his hand. Kisen turned his head back in the direction he was headed and staggered off.
“—in the warehouse,” said the retreating figure. “How horrible—how dreadful—”
Asen summoned Ukou early the next morning. Ukou had spent the night drinking, only to be woken up soon after he went to bed, leaving him in a foul mood. But Asen only sent for him when he had some dirty job that only Ukou could do. The opportunity to show off his skills and throw his weight around the way he liked always raised his spirits.
As payback for waking him up, he made the messenger wait while he took his time getting ready. He always wore his red armor whenever he had business to tend to. He strapped on the podao given him by Asen and headed to the Inner Palace. Ukou never went anywhere without a sword. Ukou even had special permission to appear armed before Asen. If he was permitted to carry a sword around Asen, he could do so anywhere else in the Imperial Palace too, and everybody around him had to be constantly reminded of that fact.
When Ukou entered the Inner Palace, Asen was already on the throne. The room was cleared. Asen and Ukou were alone in the large hall. Asen didn’t start talking until he’d confirmed that all the doors were closed.
“We know where Gyousou is.”
“Ah,” said Ukou. He chuckled. “So it’s time to resume the hunt?”
The assault seven years before rose up in his thoughts. How astonished Gyousou had been at Ukou’s skills with a sword. Gyousou had been thoroughly thrown off his game. He’d never forget Gyousou’s face as he rained down blow after blow. Ukou never grew tired of remembering and reliving that engagement.
They’d first met in battle at an inopportune moment and Ukou didn’t have the time to finish him off. The next time, though, he’d cut him in two. Picturing the thought, Ukou frowned to himself. Except he’d been expressly told to not kill him.
Asen was unlikely to believe Ukou was trying to go easy on Gyousou and slipped up. He could probably argue that he was trying to pull his punches but his opponent fought like a madman and forced his hand. Ukou smiled to himself.
“A hunt it will be but you won’t be the hunter.”
Ukou responded with a quizzical tilt of his head. Responding to Asen’s beckoning call, several figures appeared from behind the folding screens. They were clad in armor and held swords.
Ukou looked back and forth between Asen and the squad of soldiers that appeared out of nowhere. What’s going on, he didn’t need to ask. Asen intended to dispose of him once and for all. He glared at this band of assassins, his whole frame trembling with fury. A second look and that rage turned to amusement. Standing at the fore was Kisen. Kisen was one of Hinken’s duller underlings, utterly average as a swordsman.
For someone like himself, who had cut down the great Gyousou, Kisen didn’t rise to the level of a serious threat.
He was about to laugh out loud when he took note of the look in Kisen’s eyes. The expression froze on his face. There was no life, no living soul, in those eyes. He glanced at Asen. Asen’s icy gaze all but turned him to stone. Asen held up a paper talisman and with both hands and slowly tore it in two.
Kisen and the rest of the puppets weren’t his foes. If anyone was going to finish him off, that would be Asen. Well, killing Asen and seizing the throne for himself wouldn’t be such a bad deal. He was about to shout out a battle cry when a sensation like something being torn from his back numbed his vocal cords. That something slithered up his spine to nape of his neck and crawled out of his body.
At the same time, a great heaviness descended upon his shoulders. Ukou remembered the last time he felt that ponderous weight. Now he screamed. That feeling of his head and limbs being stuffed with straw after a long night of drinking. A pervasive sense of fatigue he had not felt since Asen had possessed him with the hinman.
He took it from me! He took my hinman from me!
The hollow-eyed Kisen effortlessly drew his podao from the scabbard. His stance left not a single opening in his defenses, every movement practiced to perfection, flowing naturally as water. How could this be the same run of the mill soldier who had never fought better than the average amateur?
Overcome by a wave of panic, Ukou grabbed for the hilt of his sword. His trembling hand closed at first on empty air. When he managed to draw his sword, it was like hauling up an anchor. By the time the blade cleared the scabbard, Kisen was already close enough to reach out and touch him. Ukou managed to swing the sword. But it traced no gleaming arc through the air toward its target. Kisen was already nowhere near the leaden tip of the weapon.
Ukou retreated in haste, only to realize that he had moved closer to Kisen, now standing next to him, holding the podao high above his head. The tip of the blade drew a sharp and shining line in the air, just as Ukou’s sword once had.
And a moment later, cut Ukou in two.
Kisen gazed down at the corpse, sliced neatly in half from the crown of his head to the bottom of the ribcage. He felt nothing. He reflexively flicked the gore off the blade and slid the podao back into the scabbard.
Off to the side, a voice called out to him, “Good job!”
That voice somehow struck a chord, speaking words that he had longed to hear for so long. Even with his head wrapped in a dark cloud, he understood that much.
He felt a faint spark of happiness and nodded.
“Head to Nanshou and capture Gyousou. Under no circumstances should you kill him.”
Within the pitch dark, that voice shone down on him like the light from the sun. Kisen nodded again. But for some inexplicable reason, he felt a touch of loneliness.