6-4 While Houto reached out to his shin’nou contacts to find another place to stay, Risai and Kyoshi took a stroll around Rin’u. Ki’itsu offered his services as a guide, though Kyoshi got the feeling he was tagging along to make sure his guests didn’t stir up the kind of trouble that might cause them grief.
As far as Risai was concerned, their relationship with Ki’itsu and Fukyuu Temple had started off on entirely the wrong foot, but one that was also unavoidable. Rin’u was overflowing with refugees who had no place else to go.
Caught up in the chaos caused by the conflict with the land gangs, followed almost immediately by the eradication campaign against Gyousou’s retainers, and then the purges of any remaining anti-Asen holdouts, they’d been cast aside without a second thought.
The refugees who’d come to rely on Fukyuu Temple received the bare minimum in terms of housing and subsisted on a meager diet.
But scattered throughout Rin’u were many more fending off the wind and rain with a single blanket, the great majority with jaundiced skin and clouded eyes. An emaciated mother cradling a baby against her skin and bones frame. Scrawny children fishing through the garbage piled up on the street. The elderly curled up in the alleys, clothed in rags, and showing no more life in them than old fallen trees.
“Can’t the administration offer them any aid?” Kyoshi asked.
Ki’itsu shook his head. These refugees were not citizens of Rin’u. The official stance of the government was that those benefits extended only to legal residents of the city. In their eyes, any squatters not there legally did not exist at all.
But that didn’t mean the legal residents of Rin’u had access to social services that came anywhere close to meeting their needs. The granaries and public warehouses where foodstuffs and material goods were stored in case of natural disasters and hard cold spells had long been emptied. The wagons delivering the harvest had a habit of disappearing en route.
The officials claimed they distributed the proceeds to impoverished villages and hamlets, except no one ever heard a word from the supposed recipients of this generosity.
“Then how will they fare during the winter?” Kyoshi asked. “Snowfalls are heavy in this region.”
Ki’itsu explained, “The cold is a greater fear than the snow. Aside from the northern coast of Bun Province bordering the Kyokai, snowfalls around here are not so severe. Heavy enough to collapse the roofs of older houses, to be sure, but not enough to leave villages cut off and isolated. Rather, the wolf at the door is the cold that seeps into the bones.”
Every year, refugees camped out alongside the roads froze to death. Even those with homes to live in could find themselves at risk if they ran out of firewood and charcoal.
Ki’itsu said, looking around, “Were this the dynasty of Emperor Kyou, the damage would likely be all the greater. And yet—”
They’d come to the suburbs of the city, to the banks of the river that flowed through the outskirts of Rin’u.
The southeast of Bun Province was marked by hilly land that rose over and again into mountain ranges. In the midst of the highlands, Rin’u and its environs occupied the only level land that reached to the horizon as far as the eye could see. The Hokusui cut through the middle of the flatlands, a big river that ran north to the Kyokai from the capital city of Kouki far to the south.
Having collected the runoff from the streams cascading down from the surrounding mountains, the river turned abruptly to the west in the vicinity of where they were standing. The geography here could be accounted to the imposing presence of Mount You.
Home to numerous towering Ryou’un peaks, the enormous mountain range occupied the middle of northern Bun Province, dividing north from south in the eastern half of the province. No navigable roads crossed Mount You straight through to the north, meaning that any passage to the northeast of Bun Province required a detour around the mountain.
The Mount You range dominated any view of the north, the ragged ridgelines fading into the distance beneath the clear fall sky. The giant pillars of the Ryou’un Mountains, that otherwise would have loomed overhead instead dissolved into the air. From Mount You, the mountains sloped down to the flatlands around Rin’u. Harvested fields spread out from the foothills.
A cold wind blew across empty plains thick with withered autumn growth. What looked altogether like a land of wrack and ruin reached out before them.
The Hokusui neatly bisected the plain. A considerable distance separated the three of them from the opposite bank. High levees lined the river, though they looked less like levees than great gouges left behind in the earth by the flow of the river.
The embankments were covered by white flowering shrubs.
“We owe our lives to these,” Ki’itsu said. He reached out and plucked several of the yellow fruits from amongst the small white flowers and deposited them into a bag that hung around his neck.
The shrub was called the thorn oak. It thrived even in depleted soil and flowered from spring until late fall. The fruit emerged after the flowers fell, about the size of a small stone. When dried, it made a fine substitute for charcoal. The plant did not exist before the battles with the land gangs. When Gyousou ascended the throne, he petitioned Heaven and obtained the new seed.
After Gyousou went missing, the seeds were distributed throughout the country. During the six years of his absence, the thorn oak had made life bearable. People came to call it the Gift of Kouki.
The way the bag hanging around his neck was discolored with the oily stains from the fruit, Ki’itsu probably picked several every time he went out. Kyoshi and Risai did the same. They were by no means the only ones. Others along the levee were picking the fruit.
The thorn oaks bushes were everywhere, covering the banks of the river, the causeways between the rice paddies, and the rising slopes of the mountains. It was a testament to just how important charcoal was. While the thorn oak did not burn with as much heat as charcoal, when charcoal became too expensive to afford, there was a substitute available at the cost of a little effort. It was indeed a gift of great worth to the people of Tai.
On their journey, Kyoshi and Risai and Houto had regularly gathered the thorn oak berries. For young children in particular, it’d become part of their usual chores.
Picking the thorn oak berries, Ki’itsu stopped. Holding the bag in his hands, he slumped to the ground. “The person who blessed us with these gifts—where is he now and what is he doing?”
Kyoshi didn’t know how to answer such a question. Risai silently gazed down at the berries cupped in her hands.
“Is he even still alive?”
“He is without a doubt,” Risai declared.
Ki’itsu glanced up at her. “Then why has he hidden himself away?”
“He isn’t hiding because he wants to. I don’t know where he is and what he is doing, but if he is safe and sound, then I know the present state of Tai pains him as much as any injury. Whatever he is doing, he is doing it in order the save Tai. It may not appear that way because conditions are so dire and are not improving. All the more reason we must come to his aid.” Risai paused and added, “That is what I honestly believe.”
Holding the bag in his hands, Ki’itsu nodded. “If true, then shouldn’t we mobilize Fukyuu Temple and help you out as well?”
“No need to go that far,” Risai said. Ki’itsu fixed his gaze on her and she explained. “Saving him means making an enemy of Asen, which will invite a high degree of danger. Those who have someone or something to protect should give that their undivided attention. For Ki’itsu-dono, the people sheltering at Fukyuu Temple are your first priority. Saving them is your way of saving Tai.”
“You really think so?”
“Leave it to people like me, who have nothing else to lose, to save His Highness. Your support of Tai, in turn, gives us the peace of mind that makes it possible for us to dedicate ourselves fully to our objectives.”
Ki’itsu responded with a deep bow.
The next day, Houto brought a man to see them. “This is Kenchuu. He runs an agency here in Rin’u.”
Kenchuu was a brawny man who made no unnecessary movements and said no unnecessary things. He stood next to Houto, his arms folded across his chest.
“The shin’nou in Rin’u introduced me to him. He recruits laborers for the mines in the mountains. The miners who come to Rin’u looking for work need room and board until a job comes through. Kenchuu here makes sure they get it.”
“Nice to make your acquaintance,” Risai said.
Kenchuu answered with a wordless nod. A man of few words, Kyoshi thought. More than just a man who had little to say, he carried about him a curiously intimidating aura. Keeping rough men like miners in line certainly required a particular ruggedness of both muscle and mind. He was as much a knight errant as a mere job recruiter.
Houto drew closer to Risai and said under his breath, “Not the kind of thing he wants bandied about, but amongst the miners are a fair number of exiles and refugees. Word is, the refugees gathered in Rin’u have come to depend on his good offices in one way or another.”
“You don’t say.”
“He arranges room and board for the miners. To that end, he maintains a portfolio of rental properties. I gather he’s willing to lease one of them to us.”
“For which we would be very grateful,” said Risai, turning to face Kenchuu.
Kenchuu finally opened his mouth. “There are conditions.”
“Such as? We will, of course, do our best to make sure that our actions do not conflict with your interests.”
“The shin’nou tell me you’re looking for His Highness. That true?”
“You looking to start a revolution?”
“Not at all—” Houto started to say.
Risai cut him off. “You have heard correctly. I am searching for His Highness. During the battles with the land gangs and the chaos that followed in Bun Province, we lost all contact with him. I need to ascertain his condition, and if he is well, offer him whatever assistance I can. That is all. Would you call that fomenting a rebellion?”
“I’m asking whether His Highness is for the people or against them.”
“That depends on what you mean by being against the people.”
Risai-sama, Kyoshi whispered tersely under his breath.
“What I mean?” Kenchuu fixed Risai with a sharp glare.
Risai did not retreat. “His Highness surely holds no malice against the kingdom or its people. But I could not say he would show allegiance to the kingdom that exists today. Observing its current state, he might well find no righteousness in it. If that is what you mean by against, then I could not categorically say he is not against the people. Though I couldn’t say so for certain without meeting with him in person and hearing him speak his own mind.”
Kenchuu narrowed his eyes in a way that said his suspicions had in no way been allayed, but he did not argue. “I’m not looking for trouble.”
“And we’re not looking to cause you any,” Risai said.
He nodded. “The place is not far from here. After me.”
Kenchuu led Kyoshi, Risai, and Houto out the back gate. With Houto in the lead, they wound their way down through the narrow alleyways.
His eyes on Kenchuu’s back, Kyoshi said to Risai in a hushed voice, “Do you think it wise to answer the way you did?”
Not being able to speak the truth made the lies inevitable. But Risai’s choice of words did not quite amount to a falsehood while skirting close to dangerous territory.
“At least he didn’t ask if we were deserters,” she muttered to herself.
By which she meant deserters from the Imperial Army. Or more precisely, the remnants of Gyousou’s retinue. She suspected that’s what Kenchuu really wanted to ask them about.
“It seemed to me that he left us enough room to maneuver around the stone-cold truth, so I ran with it.”