22-3 That evening, Sekirei rushed from Gamon Temple in the midst of a softly falling rain.
“The Provincial Guard at Hakurou is moving out.”
Having raced all the way from Rokou, her shoulders heaved with exhaustion. As soon as they arrived, her kijuu keeled over, gasping for breath.
“They were bivouacked on the outskirts of Hakurou. Now they’re headed to the border with Ba Province.”
Sougen caught his breath. The Provincial Guard would only move out of Hakurou in order to take custody of Gyousou. That meant he’d been detained in Ba Province.
Yuushou groaned. “They didn’t make it in time.”
“So it seems,” Sougen said, a sour look on his face. He instructed his retainers to look after the kijuu. He had Sekirei sit down on the sleeping hearth and asked someone to bring her a drink of water.
“The army on the outskirts of Hakurou is marching to Ba Province?”
Sekirei nodded. “According to Tonkou, the Ministry of Summer issued orders for them to police the provincial border and all the highways crossing the border.”
“Makes sense,” Yuushou muttered.
“So their intention is to secure the roads.”
If Gyousou’s only escort was the air cavalry that had sortied from Kouki, they could still launch a raid to retrieve the prisoner. But there was no chance of that with an entire army watching the roads from Ba Province to Rin’u.
“There is nothing normal about putting an entire division on guard duty. Asen is not taking our fighting potential for granted.”
“He’d never be so naive as to take any opponent for granted. If nothing else, we have to hope that he overestimates our battlefield strength.”
A full division could provide defense in depth across the whole route from the border to Rin’u. The army and the air cavalry platoon holding Gyousou would likely merge forces and travel together. In that case, together with a division of the Imperial Army and a division of the Provincial Guard already stationed there, three armies would eventually occupy Rin’u.
These were well-provisioned and well-trained soldiers armed with winter weapons and riding war horses and kijuu. They had the run of every city and castle town along the way
The Black Flags, by contrast, numbered no more than ten thousand, many of whom were civilian rebels unaccustomed to battlefield warfare. They had the bare minimum in equipment and armor. Kijuu were few and far between and they did not have enough war horses to bother counting.
“Sekirei, do you have any idea what battle formations we are talking about here?”
She nodded and produced a manuscript from her pocket. “Tonkou-sama looked into the matter. He advises caution as he was not able to confirm all of this information to his own satisfaction.”
Sougen took the manuscript and studied it for a while, furrowing his brows. Finally he frowned and passed the manuscript to a retainer standing next to him.
“Gaikatsu, what do you read into these troop numbers?”
Gaikatsu was a regimental commander who’d long been a member of Sougen’s senior staff. An accomplished general and one of Sougen’s right-hand men, he was never far from Sougen’s side.
Gaikatsu took the papers and flipped through them, busily tapping on his knee as if doing calculations with an invisible abacus. He looked up and said, “Based on the formations Asen is likely to deploy, and erring on high side, a rough estimate says they’d have a little over five times our troop strength.”
“Five times,” Sekirei muttered.
In other words, resistance was futile.
“Given the differences in training, experience, and equipment, the disparities in weaponry along with the number of air cavalry and war horses, at least five times our troop strength. Moreover, their mission is to guard the convoy, not fight a war. At the first sign of danger, they’ll hightail it inside the nearest defensive perimeter. Even if we cut off the encampments along the route, they could always fall back to the castles and castle towns and make full use of the provisions stockpiled there. Factor that into the equation and we’re talking seven times the troop strength we can put into the field.”
“What is the situation on our end?”
“We’ve been reconnoitering the surrounding areas but have yet to ascertain the location of Eishou-sama and Gashin-sama. The Koutaku and Gamon Temple forces have all relocated. Risai’s retainers are currently moving toward Seisai, along with Kouyuu’s troops and most of the Jou Provincial Guard. The forces from Jou are several days out but Kouyuu is expected to reach Hakurou fairly soon.”
“There’s still no telling whether they’ll make it in time.”
“We should assume the Provincial Guard will be on high alert. In that case, Kouyuu will stop short of Hakurou. So, no, they won’t make it in time.”
The grotto fell silent. Overcoming a force five times stronger was well-nigh impossible. Moreover, at seven times their troop strength, stirring up any trouble at all was out of the question from the start.
“But if His Highness is taken into custody, the whole game is over,” Sougen said quietly. “Mourning our meager numbers won’t accomplish a thing. We’re talking total war. We can’t allow His Highness to get handed over to the Imperial Army.”
Sougen was handing down orders to his subordinates when one of his retainers rushed in. “Sougen-sama, Risai-sama—”
Sougen was about to follow the messenger out of the room when Risai staggered into the grotto. It was obvious at a glance that she’d been through a fierce battle. Her face was as pale as moonlight.
“I assume he’s been apprehended. The Provincial Guard joined up with the Imperial Army and they are mobilizing their forces.”
Risai nodded. She dropped to her knees with a heartbroken expression. “I am so sorry.”
Sekirei hurried over and helped her up.
“Did Kouka make it in time? How many men does he have left?”
“Not many. In order to draw away the Ba Provincial Guard, I had him retreat west to Ba Province. Only Oukou and I were able to make it back here.”
Seishi raised his voice. “What of Kyoshi and Houto?”
The grimace on Risai’s face told the story. Seishi could not help but stand there aghast. All of the days they had spent together since the start of winter the year before rose up in his mind. Once helpless and alone, they had come this far, together fighting a host of unseen enemies. The innumerable memories stabbed like needles at his conscience.
“I wasn’t able to protect them. I’m sorry,” Risai apologized, though this turn of events was nothing she had to apologize for.
“Kyoshi was a Taoist monk. Houto was a shin’nou. They weren’t soldiers. They deserved better than a dog’s death on a distant battlefield.”
A soldier knew from the start that he might end up dying in a fallow field, his corpse picked over by the crows. But these two weren’t soldiers. They didn’t sign up for this.
“We don’t have the time to mourn the dead,” Sougen said in a low voice. “The Imperial Army was never after us. They didn’t come here to subjugate us. They came here to apprehend His Highness.”
If we had only realized that earlier. The mortifying admission surely weighed on Sougen’s mind. Considering the strange way the Imperial Army deployed its forces, they should have figured out that the Imperial Army had never been after them.
“The unit that captured Gyousou-sama joined the Bun Provincial Guard. After that, they will link up with main body of the Imperial Army. We can’t allow that to happen. Once they do, the Black Flags will have no chance of prevailing in any confrontation.”
Risai agreed. “We’d be better off intercepting them before they joined the Provincial Guard. But given the distances involved, we’d never make it in time. That means we’ve somehow got to keep them from reaching the Imperial Army.”
The expressions that rose to the faces of Yuushou and the others could only be described as dispirited. They’d been mustering forces in each region as quickly as possible. The entire fighting force of the Black Flags was by no means concentrated in Rokou and Seisai. The Black Flags had grown too large. They couldn’t keep them all close enough at hand to mobilize on a moment’s notice.
Their colleagues scattered amongst the nearby town ruins could be gathered into platoons in a day, but it’d take a fair amount of time to reach out to their allies lying low in the cities further away towards Tetsui and assemble them into viable fighting units. They simply couldn’t afford to put things off long enough to get all of them together.
“It’ll take about two weeks for the army headed to Ba Province to return to the vicinity of Hakurou.”
Ten days at a forced march. Another two weeks from there to Rin’u. The Provincial Guard or the Imperial Army in Rin’u could still ride out to meet them and join forces in Koukyuu or Kakyou. Taking the size of the city into account, odds were on the latter.
“No matter how fast they mobilize, it will take the Provincial Guard ten days to move from Hakurou to Kakyou. Seven days to get to Koukyuu, eight at most.”
“Stirring up trouble in Kakyou is not the best strategy. It’s close enough that the Imperial Army in Rin’u would soon catch wind of the emergency and come running. However, the road between Kakyou and Koukyuu narrows in places, enough to slow down a forced march by the Imperial Army.”
Sougen silently nodded.
Gaikatsu said, “Factoring in the number of days it’d take us to establish positions east of Koukyuu, we should figure a delay of ten days. Twelve at most. Until then, those who aren’t able to assemble at Seisai should either sit out the fight or hasten straight to the battlefield.”
Covering the distance to Seisai was a vexing chore, but gathering there in a haphazard manner risked betraying their intentions to the enemy. No matter what, they could not give the Provincial Guard any indications about where they were going to attack. Except there was no way to coordinate the movements of so many scattered troops. Even knowing this, they were out of options.
“Most of our colleagues in Ba Province have yet to arrive,” Hoyou mused to herself. In a resplendent room in the main hall of Gamon Temple, Hoyou gnawed on her manicured nails. We’re never going to make it in time. What conditions do Risai and her men find themselves in?”
“They can’t be too badly wounded if they were able to escape,” Tonkou answered in a low voice. “We must preserve our troop strength.”
“But it will be all over if His Highness is captured. Asen’s reign will not end.”
“We are not yet without hope,” Tonkou said. “We don’t know what will happen after this. Reinforce your defenses and close the gates.”
With that, Tonkou left Gamon Temple. The new province lord was scheduled to arrive that evening. They’d already received news that he had passed through Josetsu the day before. Rumors said he was one of Asen’s retainers, but at the same time, up until now, had served as the prime minister of Zui Province with the approval of the Saiho.
At the very least, though his temperament and true allegiances remained to be seen, advice from Genkan via Moku’u recommended keeping the lines of communication open. The Ministry of Winter as well issued a note to the effect that he enjoyed Taiki’s full faith and confidence. No matter that he’d once been Asen’s retainer, he was no longer believed to be a member of Asen’s camp.
Perhaps, like Yuushou, long simmering opposition to Asen had finally risen to the surface. If so, he should be open to persuasion.
Tonkou raced his horse back to Hakurou. He changed into formal attire and prepared to meet the new province lord. Around sunset, he lined up with the assembled ministers of the Rikkan as the palanquin arrived through the Road Gate. Illuminated by a brilliant array of torchlights, the palanquin opened and the new province lord stepped out.
Tonkou knelt on the cold cobblestones and bowed deeply. He prostrated himself there, awaiting an order from the chamberlain or words from the province lord himself. But no instructions were forthcoming. A confused and awkward air flowed down the row of ministers. Tonkou finally dared to raise his head and steal a look.
Several people had climbed out of the palanquin. The new province lord must be the one in the middle. With upturned eyes, he confirmed the man’s face, and at the same time couldn’t help but groan.
The man took in his surroundings with vacant eyes, eyes that did not see the ministers kowtowing there and probably saw nothing at all. He stood there and stared into empty space, as if searching for his lost soul somewhere out there in the sky.
To a degree that sent a chill down Tonkou’s spine, the expression on his face resembled that of the current province lord, who had long ago lost the ability to carry on a meaningful conversation.