The Shore in Twilight

Chapter 9

2-2 Answering the call to assemble, Risai rushed to the Inner Palace. When she entered in Inner Palace, the chief retainers had already gathered there.

“An insurrection in Bun Province?” were her first words.

Daishiba Haboku of the Minister of Summer said in response, “From the beginning, Bun Province has festered with one problem or another.” He drew his hand through his salt and pepper beard.

Located directly north of Zui Province in the northern quarter of Tai, Bun Province was a land beset by harsh winters. Jou Province spread out across the northeast corner of the island. The winters there were as bad, but Jou was blessed with arable land and expansive forests.

The craggy land in Bun Province, in contrast, made for poor farming and was sparsely forested. Its occupants scraped by mining the gemstone fountains that dotted the land. Those gemstone fountains had been exploited so long by so many that they were running dry. Bun Province was cold and poor, the government was in shambles, and the hearts of its people ran wild.

Or so the rumors said.

Nowadays, Bun Province was beset by rebellions and civil strife. Revolt was the common resort of a frustrated and stymied people. The productive gemstone fountains and mines were controlled by rebels and insurrectionists indigenous to the area, and feuds and fights over power led to larger conflagrations and often fueled the insurgencies.

“Ousting the Province Lord took some of the pressure off. The marquis had been as ferocious as any of the rebel leaders. When it came to the sheer brutality of his actions, he bested any insurrectionist. He kept the place under a tight rein.”

Risai nodded. The previous marquis was a cruel and crafty individual. In the best of times, he was a predator for whom the impoverished province of Bun served as little more than a field of prey. But even a man like him had his redeeming qualities.

“With the change in provincial leadership, the rebel factions grew all the more brazen. More than fomenting general disorder, the rebels have been stirring up the sort of trouble with county officials that threatens to turn into civil war. In any case, with talk of them occupying the county palaces and bringing neighboring districts under their thumb, these dogs cannot be allowed to sleep where they lay.”

“We can’t go adding more fuel to this fire. Not without first impressing upon them what manner of discipline the Kingdom is willing to impose.”

The man speaking in a gravelly voice was General Ganchou of the Palace Guard of the Left. He was a big-framed fighter, full of vim and vigor. He didn’t appear particularly gripped by any sense of panic. That was true of everybody there.

They’d all understood the nature of the situation from the start.

Since the beginning of the year, a wide-ranging political purge had been sweeping through Tai. It started with a systematic sacking of the more corrupt officials along with preparations to lure out those villains biding their time under the cloak of darkness. Sidelining the infamous Province Lord of Bun took the pressure off the lid. The criminal element in the pot had begun to boil over. Such a turn of events had been anticipated from the beginning.

“If we act with restraint, they will never take the Kingdom seriously. Such an outcome is intolerable. We should journey there at once and deliver a decisive blow. We must hit them with all the majestic terror of the Imperial Army.”

“Of course, these rebels must be brought to heel, but how to strike with any kind of speed? The season must be taken into consideration. Ease up on the reins and the rebels in the various districts of Bun Province are certain to raise hell. Monkey say, monkey do. If they do us the favor of all following suit, we should be able to round them up in one fell swoop. Such a strategy would prove more effective in driving home the message that the eyes of the Kingdom are upon them.”

Ganchou looked at Haboku in amazement. “The blood runs cold in your veins, old man. These brigands are controlling the towns and villages around the county palaces. Take some thought as to the disposition of our subjects who live there.”

“What are you saying? No man with a drop of warm blood or a tear in his eyes should serve the Ministry of Summer or command the troops.”

“You may be right on that one,” replied Ganchou. His big frame shook with nonchalant laughter.

“If an Imperial rescript is to be issued, the sooner the better,” Eishou coolly interjected. Like Ganchou, Eishou had once served under Gyousou’s command. Gyousou’s army had produced many famed soldiers, among whom Eishou was the youngest. “I’m of a species with the old man, without blood in my veins or tears in my eyes. If troops are to be dispatched, then I am inclined to do so with all due haste.”

Speaking with a touch of irony in his voice, Eishou knit the brows of his bloodless, tearless face. “Once the snow begins to melt, our troubles will begin. Not only will the roads become uncertain underfoot, but when the snow pack recedes the quarry will abscond to the mountains. The mountains in Bun Province are dotted with gemstone fountains and mines. Ferreting them out would prove no easy task.”

That was indeed the case, other voices chimed in. In her heart, Risai felt the same. Hiding in the mineshafts would raise great obstacles to their capture. In order to bring the heat to the bandits of Bun Province, they couldn’t mount an invasion in dribs and drabs, dragging the campaign out for months. Taking and holding the territory quickly—demonstrating the might of the Kingdom for all to see—was the way to subjugate the rebels. If not, deliberately dispatching the Imperial Army would be without meaning.

As if to seek out his judgment on the matter, the eyes of the people assembled there all turned to Gyousou.

“I’ll entrust the matter to Eishou. Muster the Army of the Center and bring Bun Province under your control.” At the same time, Gyousou fixed Ganchou and Haboku—who held a contrary opinion—with his gaze. “This is not to say that I am necessarily endorsing Eishou’s strategy. The problem of time, the problem of Imperial dignity, the problem of bringing the rebels into line—these are of little consequence for now.”

“Of little consequence?” Eishou responded with a flash of indignation.

Gyousou nodded. “Not the most pressing of matters before us. The greatest problem we face is not the rebels but the people. More than the subjugation of the rebels, the people must be convinced that the Kingdom is capable of protecting them.”

Risai started in surprise. Judging from the way the others drew in their breath, they had the same reaction. The room fell into a kind of abashed silence.

“Eishou, you will command the Army of the Center, including the Bun Provincial Guard, and pursue the rebels. A military victory is not necessary. Clean out the county palaces. After liberating the county seats, stay behind in Bun Province for a while. Lend support to the Provincial Guard and strengthen the defenses around the capital. There’s no need to take unreasonable measures chasing down the rebels. More than that, under the rubric of showing an Imperial presence, make the people understand that the rebels themselves are not so fearsome. Calming the populace is the priority.”

“Understood!” Eishou answered, obviously impressed. He wasn’t the only one. All of Gyousou’s subordinates had the utmost faith in his words. No matter how fierce the debates in the privy councils, Risai had come to understand that when Gyousou delivered his verdict, a unanimity of opinion quickly distilled.

Eishou mobilized the Army of the Center in short order and set off for Bun Province. It was about month before word arrived that he had liberated the county palaces and for the time being had pacified the surrounding countryside. And right on schedule came news that insurrections had broken out in other regions of Bun Province.

In at least three places, along with a number of smaller skirmishes. Rather than being set alight by chance sparks cast off by the wind, these sudden uprisings bore the marks of organized resistance. Before another fortnight passed, the situation had mushroomed, and it became clear that the initial occupation of the county seats were all linked to a province-wide internal rebellion.

Led by Sougen, the Zui Provincial Army of the Left was dispatched to Bun Province, joined by three regiments of the Palace Guard of the Right, commanded by Gyousou himself. The sporadic insurrections breaking out in the various locality joined forces, with the nexus of rebel activity gravitating to the vicinity of the county palace in Tetsui.

Tetsui was a city deeply connected to Gyousou.

Three of the six division leaders of the Imperial Army that Gyousou headed could boast of being undefeated in battle. The same could not be said of Gyousou’s career as a general.

The one defeat experienced by Emperor Kyou’s loyal General of the Left had been in Tetsui. Toward the end of Emperor Kyou’s rule, Tetsui could no longer bear the exploitation by the emperor and shut off all lines of credit. They would no longer levy the Imperial tax. The Provincial Guard charged in to lay down the law, but citizens from the surrounding areas flocked to the palace and continued the resistance.

Gyousou and the Imperial Army were eventually ordered to the front in order to becalm the situation. When he arrived at Tetsui, Gyousou surrounded the city with the twelve-thousand, five-hundred soldiers of the Army of the Left, and ordered the entirety of the Provincial Guard to the rear.

The officers accompanying him, beginning with Ganchou and Eishou, took issue with this strategy. If two divisions of the Provincial Guard couldn’t liberate Tetsui, then what could a single division of the Imperial Army accomplish?

“This is pointless!” Ganchou protested.

Eishou laughed through his nose. “Aren’t you the humble one. Of course it isn’t pointless. If we can’t do this without two divisions of the Provincial Guard, what are we supposed to do when we face a real challenge? Though in any case this will take a bit of time. I don’t look forward to encountering snow on the way back.”

“Agreed,” said the former general of the Zui Provincial Guard of the Left, now General Sougen of the Imperial Army. “If the mountains to our rear are closed by snow, neither supplies nor reinforcement will make in through in satisfactory numbers. We don’t have the provisions to bivouac here in Bun Province until spring. We must win a decisive victory and head back before winter comes.”

“We can be supplied by Saku County. I’ve sent orders to Seirai to open the storehouses and make ready the provisions that would be needed for us to winter over.”

“Surely you jest!” exclaimed Eishou, rising to his feet. “No matter how hard this campaign may prove, it shall not take until spring. Gyousou-sama surely expects more of us than that!”

“Expectations are beside the point. Worst case, I ask that you at least prepare yourselves for the possibility of us wintering over here.”

“If you think the going will be that hard, recall the Provincial Guard and get those idiots to pitch in. Although they’ll no doubt prove as useful as a boat anchor on dry land.”

“We shan’t be asking the Provincial Guard for assistance. The Provincial Guard has taken shelter in the nearby villages and towns along with the civilians. No matter how wide the storehouse doors are flung open, they can’t feed the local populace as well. We can’t very well be seen eating our fill alongside starving civilians. At the same time, we can’t pare down rations for the soldiers. That would be equally bad for their health and their morale.”

“Which is why we should take Tetsui as soon as possible. Scorch the earth in all directions and after that we could wrap up the whole affair in three days. Obtain the services of the Provincial Guard for a fortnight and the unruly mob would at least be useful as human shields.”

“Eishou, what do you think we came here to accomplish?”

“To subjugate the rebels.”

“And why did they rebel in the first place?”

Eishou was hard-pressed for a reply. Of course, there was no mistake that these were rebels. They had defied Imperial decrees and did not skirt the brand of insurrectionists. However—

“The summer was cool and Bun Province faces a hard winter. The provisions necessary to winter over are sparse. If we disperse the stores in the warehouses in the name of Imperial decrees, the people will starve to death. That is not a tenable option. What others are available to us?”

Eishou raised his head. “His Highness has instructed us to put down the rebellion. Those who His Highness calls rebels are rebels to ourselves as well. That should be true of all the Palace Guard, should it not?”

But of course, Gyousou smiled thinly. “So you are the emperor’s lapdog, then? But I ask you, what is an emperor in the first place?”

Eishou held his tongue.

“If the citizens of Tetsui were inflicting harm on people elsewhere, we should be ready to wipe them out to ensure the greater good. If the citizens of Tetsui rejected this forced servitude, the burden gets passed on to other cities in the county. Consequently we should force open the gates of Tetsui and the vaults of the treasury. But is there any need to exceed such measures?”

A silence descended on the camp.

“The Imperial rescript orders us to force our way into Tetsui and open the treasury. However, it says nothing about harming even one person in Tetsui.” Declared Gyousou, “Soldiers are not permitted to carry swords. Shields may be deployed, but not swung or otherwise used against the citizenry with the intent of using them as weapons.”

Shields were fashioned from rugged hardwood. Steel reinforcing was allowed on the inside of the shields, but not on the outside. Taking into account their civilian opponents when in the heat of battle hot-blooded soldiers were likely to lash out with their shields, the outside of the shields were covered with thick lamb’s wool. The wool was white.

If, contrary to orders, a shield was used as a weapon and a civilian was injured—even a spot of blood staining the wool—the standing order was for that soldier to be punished severely.

Captured individuals were admonished and released. They could return to Tetsui if they so wished, or to the towns and villages in the countryside.

“I know how you must feel, groaning under the weight of so many taxes. But if the Imperial edicts are taken for granted, they would in a flash lose all the gravity attached to them. Weary of the hard toil, if your inclination to pull your fingers from the dikes spreads far and wide, you will be ones who ultimately suffer. If the tax protesters in Tetsui go unchallenged, that burden will simply pass to the other citizens of the county. If you can grasp this principle, then should not the treasury be opened?”

Some returned to their town and villages. Some spoke of their will to return to Tetsui. At first the people were gripped by suspicions. But once they discerned the willingness of Gyousou’s soldiers to stay their hands, they gave more thought to Gyousou’s intentions.

The siege went on for forty days. The Imperial Army repeatedly threatened to force their way into the county palace and retreated. Their shields remained white and unblemished. As the people of Tetsui tested the limits of the “liberating” Imperial troops, this was communicated to Kouki, and the will of the emperor continued to be assessed.

A mutual compromise became inevitable. Gyousou’s soldiers would not be deemed “victorious,” but neither would their campaign be called a failure. On the one hand, the besieged citizens of Tetsui had to face the impossibility of keeping the treasury closed. On the other, the emperor had to face the reality that his own Palace Guard were in an unwinnable draw.

Finally, on the forty-first day of the siege, the palace gates were opened. But not as the result of conquest on the field of battle.

Gyousou passed through the mountains as the first snows of winter fell. He returned to Kouki and there gave an accounting of his “defeat.” His soldiers had taken ten thousand blows and returned not a one. However, the treasury had been liberated because the people had chosen the right path and opened it themselves. The people of Tetsui preserved the Divine Will.

As a result, the taxes were collected and this “defeat” was set aside, the ends having been said to justify the means.

Subsequently, the expression “A Tetsui Shield” circulated through the northern districts of Tai, also known as the “White Wool Shield.” It meant a sign of good faith, as in: “If you wish us to take you seriously, show us a Tetsui Shield.”

Gyousou and Tetsui were bound by the bonds of good faith. When Tetsui was pulled into the vortex of war, Gyousou could not turn a blind eye. Together with Sougen and twenty-thousand soldiers under their command, they set out for Bun Province.

Risai wrapped her arms around Taiki’s shoulders as they watched them leave.

“Gyousou-sama is going to come back safely, right?” The young kirin looked up at her, worry etched on his face.

Risai nodded with confidence. “Everything’s going to be all right, Taiho.”

My assurances have all been turned into lies, she knew when she thought about it later.

The chaos had from the first been carefully planned to drag Tetsui into the middle of the conflict. And that couldn’t have resulted from the violent clashing of mere rebels. The rebels had been organized and given direction and guided from the shadows. The person standing in the shadows had anticipated that Gyousou would not abandon Tetsui to its own devices.

The second time around, Gyousou did not return to Kouki.

Copyright Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved.