10-2 They waited for dawn to break and set off toward the east. As best Ki’itsu could recall, six villages were nestled deep in the mountains, located along the trails that climbed the foothills from the city of Nanto.
They arrived at Nanto two days later and found room and board at the Taoist temple. While there, they asked if anyone had seen a group of refugees hauling a curiously large trunk. The incident would have occurred six years before.
“That long ago—” The head priest responded with a look that his withered complexion made look all the more perplexed. No one else at the temple had any helpful information.
The next day, they left their heavier packs behind when they departed Nanto. They trusted their horses to find the best way along the trails as they visited each village in turn.
The first was located close to the highway. Perhaps as a result, it showed little evidence of ruin and decay, despite the dire poverty on display. But they learned nothing of use.
The second village no longer existed. The wrecked and charred remnants spread out before them, making them wonder what disaster had occurred. The third village was located not far from those ruins, crouching at the bottom of a narrow valley cut into the steep slopes of the towering mountains.
The name of the village was Ginsen, meaning “silver river.” They’d heard that silver was once mined there. The silver fountains had long ago dried up. The villagers now made a living panning for nuggets in the river that flowed along the valley floor
The sun had not yet set but the gates to the village were closed.
“So many villages in Bun Province are like this,” Risai sighed.
Ki’itsu said apologetically, “A city like Nanto, adjacent the highway and accustomed to doing business with travelers, will follow the usual customs. But this is normal for a small village.”
Kyoshi said to Ki’itsu in consoling tones, “Ten Shire is no different. Even when the gates are left open, anybody approaching the village is sure to be challenged.”
“Not only Bun Province and not only Ten Shire,” Houto added with a sad smile. “The same holds for any village anywhere. Even when there are no pressing circumstances, if this village is the only one around with an open gate, then all the travelers with no place else to go will end up on its doorstep.”
“That is indeed true,” Ki’itsu said.
Ki’itsu rapped on the narrow wicket gate set into the massive doors. A little while later, the wicket gate opened from within. A middle-aged man peered out.
Ki’itsu said, “We wish to visit the Rishi. May we come in?”
The man looked them over. The party of four before him consisted of two dressed in priestly robes and a man and a woman wearing regular traveling garb.
“Do the honorable priests wish to make use of the Rishi? Shall I go see if caretakers of the Rishi are in?”
“Ah, no. That is all right. We happened to be in the area and thought we’d stop by. We are from Fukyuu Temple in Rin’u. The two behind us are with the shin’nou guild.”
The man looked confused as how to proceed. “What business brings you to our humble town?”
“Well, we’re not here to conduct any specific business, aside from being asked by the abbot to visit the villages in the area to see how the Rishi are faring, to assess how ready they are for the winter and note what they may be lacking in the way of stores and supplies.”
Perhaps reacting to the mention of “stores and supplies,” the man smiled at last. “Oh, is that what this is about? We’re grateful for all your good work.”
He opened the wicket gate wider. They tied up the horses outside the gate and followed him into the village.
“I’ll wait here,” Houto said when they stepped inside the gate. He turned to the man. “I’d like to make sure you have enough medicine to last the winter. If not, I can always leave some on consignment.”
The man answered with a big bob of his head. “We’ve been wondering when a shin’nou was going to drop by. Much appreciated.” He called out to a woman looking on suspiciously. “They’re priests from Fukyuu Temple. Wanted to see the Rishi.” Then he said to Houto. “I’ll let the others know.”
He ran down the main road. Kyoshi, Risai, and Ki’itsu left Houto in charge of a gathering crowd of curious villagers and headed for the Rishi.
A middle-aged woman asked, “Are you from Fukyuu Temple?”
“Yes. We’re making the rounds of local villages to see how they expect to fare over the coming winter.”
“Thank you,” She clasped her hands together and bowed. “Abbot Jokan-sama really watches over the people around here.”
Kyoshi felt a twinge in his heart and stole a look at Ki’itsu. Right then, Ki’itsu stood there calm and composed, a warm smile on his face. Maybe the line about “making the rounds” wasn’t just a convenient excuse to get inside the village gates.
The woman showed them the way. “The good folk of Fukyuu Temple have kindly visited us in the past.”
“We try to get out on a regular basis. Last year we were short-handed and only made it to a few towns. We’re sorry about that.”
“Oh, you have nothing to apologize for. It’s good of you to come at all.”
Ah, Kyoshi said to himself with a growing realization. He glanced at Risai, who nodded as well in admiration. Abbot Jokan was doing his best to reach to the impoverished villages in the district, despite the number of refugees they had already taken in and their own resources being stretched to the limit.
The village was poor, yet the avenue was so well kept that the destitution was not at all apparent. Though worn and tattered, the houses showed signs of diligent maintenance. The Rishi was no different. The paint was peeling and the structure bore obvious scars here and there, but what could be repaired had been repaired, lending to the overall impression of everything being in good working order. Though meager, there also remained traces of offerings and incense.
Responding to the woman’s greeting, the superintendent appeared and politely bowed to them. He answered each of Ki’itsu’s questions. In short, the villagers should have enough food stored away to winter over without going hungry, though some were just scraping by. There was nothing in the way of a surplus, not as much as they would like to feed the growing children and the infirmed in need of nourishing food. Any kind of natural disaster had good odds of causing great misfortune. They barely had enough reserves to make ends meet as is.
Ki’itsu nodded along to each response. “People are going through hard time most everywhere we go, so it is reassuring to hear you have enough to meet the bare minimum. Having a little extra on hand when people get sick is always a good idea. We do have some hyakka roasted grain on hand. It cooks up to a nourishing gruel. Not a lot, but we’ll send over whatever we can spare.”
“We’d be grateful.”
“How are your charcoal supplies holding out?”
“We have the Gift of Kouki so we should make it through the winter. If worst comes to worst, we’ve got reserves of twenty bushels of thorn oak and charcoal.”
“Impressive,” Ki’itsu said. He cocked his head to the side. “With the main gate shuttered, I expected you to be in much worse straits. It is a great relief to see that is not the case.”
Caught off guard by the remark, the superintendent blinked. He smiled in a self-effacing manner. “With law and order on the wane around here—”
“The land gangs?”
The superintendent nodded. “Yes well—”
Looking on, Risai felt a whisper of suspicion about the way the superintendent handled himself. There was something else she couldn’t help noticing since entering the Rishi. Subtle traces of a particular scent lingered in the air of the main hall, that reminded her of the smell of oil used to maintain weaponry.
The dire poverty that usually accounted for a shuttered gate wasn’t evident in this village. The superintendent’s excuse of breakdown in law and order looked just as dubious.
“By the way—” Ki’itsu said, changing the subject. “Thinking back six years ago or so, would you have noticed refugees moving a curious trunk around these parts?”
“A curious trunk?”
“A large trunk being transported on a cart. A band of refugees moved it through here doing their best not to be seen.”
“I cannot imagine what you might be referring to,” the superintendent said, his countenance growing firm. “Is this something you are looking for?”
Ki’itsu nodded. “A gang of thieves stole a valuable Buddhist statue from a temple in Rin’u. At this juncture, we are not so interested in apprehending anybody for the crime but hope to return the statue to its rightful owner.”
“Ah,” said the superintendent, his face brightening with obvious relief. “A serious affair, indeed.”
“A status about as tall as a person. Probably encased in some sort of packing material.”
“Unfortunately, nothing springs to mind. As you have seen for yourselves, the roads around here are mountain trails that wander off into the wilderness. Refugees on the move are unlikely to ever drop by.”
“Of course,” Ki’itsu said with a bow. He inquired about other villages in the area, then brought the conversation to an end, promising that they wouldn’t leave with any more that what they brought with them, and left the Rishi.
“What do you think?” he softly asked Risai once they were out of earshot.
“There is something a bit odd about his attitude.”
Kyoshi said, “Risai-sama, did you notice it too?”
“You mean, the smell?”
Kyoshi nodded. The strange scent hadn’t escaped Kyoshi’s attention either.
“Smell?” Ki’itsu queried with a puzzle tilt of his head.
“They could be storing weapons in the Rishi.”
“Why would they do something like that?”
“I wonder if they are taking precautions in case the land gangs start acting up.”
Kyoshi said, “When Ki’itsu mentioned the Buddhist statue, you could see the relief all over his face.”
Risai agreed. “Mentioning the trunk clearly struck a chord. The superintendent likely has a good idea what was in it, and it wasn’t a Buddhist statue.”
Kyoshi glanced around. There aren’t many people out and about. “They’re hiding something here.”
Or were they hiding someone? Someone they needed a cache of weapons to defend? To keep anybody from discovering what that was, as in Touka, they kept the outsiders out.
“Whatever it is, it’d be in the rika or the council house,” Risai said. A quick examination of her surroundings confirmed that no one was watching them. She strode in as casual a manner as she could muster toward the west side of the Rishi. That was her best guess for where the rika was located.
She following the fence to a row of buildings with heavily tiled roofs, catching glimpses of trees and shrubs in a small garden through gaps in the fence. Here was the only building in the village large enough to be called a manor. From its overall style, she didn’t think it was the council house. Probably the rika.
Walking a little further brought her to a tiled gate. The gate doors were shut tight, leaving not so much as a gap to squeeze through.
“The gates are closed, eh?” Kyoshi muttered. “All the stranger.”
“Is there something I can help you with?” a wary voice called out. A short man of fifty or so emerged from the house opposite the gates.
“Oh, nothing we particularly need help with,” Ki’itsu answered cheerfully. “We were curious about how the rika is faring.”
“Yes. How many people are living there, what condition it is in. Depending on the situation, whether you’re short of any necessities.”
“Why are you priests so interested in the rika?” the man pressed.
“What’s going on?” a familiar voice rang out behind them.
The superintendent ran up. Ki’itsu bowed to him and repeated what he’d told the other man. Clearly flustered, the superintendent said, “The rika is closed. We don’t have the budget. Orphans and the aged are taken care of by families in the village.”
“So that is how you’re handling it.” Ki’itsu smiled.
The small man regarded that smile with a suspicious glare. The superintendent’s smile by now lacked any humor. He gestured toward the front gate. “You should probably be moving on. It’s about time to close the gates.”
“Oh, but of course. Thank you very much for your hospitality.”
“We would invite you to stay the night, but unfortunately—”
“We understand. Don’t worry, we’ll be fine.”
Without any further fuss, Ki’itsu proceeded to the gate. Risai gave the houses another searching look, taking in the still suspicious countenance of the small man and the villagers behind him. Without a word, she turned on her heels and followed Ki’itsu.
At the gate, they found Houto engaged in a friendly chat with the villagers. Ki’itsu said, “Thanks for waiting. Shall we be on our way?”
With a nod of his head, Houto bade his new friends goodbye, hoisted the pack onto his back, and ducked through the wicket gate. The superintendent politely bowed and shut the gate behind them.
Without a word among them, they got back on their horses and started down the trail. Reaching the bottom of another hill, they turned behind a screen of trees crowding the slope of the mountain. There they lined up the mounts and stopped.
“What do you think, Houto?”
“The villagers I talked to said they didn’t know anything about any refugees carting anything anywhere. But I came away with the feeling they were hiding something.”
Houto was rambling on about how the refugees and their cart were headed this way when one of the villagers unexpectedly agreed with him.
“Despite saying they didn’t know anything, he insisted those refugees were going to another village, not this one. And then his mate jumps into say those were just rumors they’d heard. The whole thing struck me as very odd.”
“Sounds like they know a lot,” Risai said, climbing off her horse. She set her pack on the ground and took out her sword.
Houto nodded. “That village is better off than I expected. Thanks to that, I did some good business there.”
“They’re hiding something in the rika,” said Kyoshi. “The superintendent said it was shuttered but there was smoke coming from the chimney.”
Hoisting the pack onto her back, Risai agreed. She’d noticed the thin haze rising from the chimney as well. “And then there was the house opposite,” she said, thinking back. The ordinary wooden gate had a peephole installed. “For keeping an eye on the rika.” When she was standing in front of the rika, she’d noted at least two faces peering out at them. “They had several people in there watching us.”
“All the more suspicious. What’s next?” Houto asked. “Should we go back?”
Risai got back on her horse. “We should gather more information about Ginsen first.”
“Good idea,” said Houto.
Just then, a rustling sound came from the hilly slope to their right. Masked men armed with lances jumped out from the underbrush.
“Right on schedule,” Risai muttered, drawing her sword. “Houto, you and Ki’itsu head down the mountain. Get out of harm’s way.”
Houto grabbed the reins to Ki’itsu’s horse and started off at a gallop. When several of the masked men ran over to block the way, Kyoshi knocked them aside with his staff. They reeled backward and tumbled to the ground.
“You from Ginsen?”
“What are you talking about?” answered a muffled voice on the edge of panic. “We’re—we’re the land gangs who run this territory! Hand over those packs!”
Risai had to try hard not to laugh. What land gangs ever announced themselves as such in the midst of a highway robbery? “In that case, disguising yourselves rather misses the point, does it not? I’m getting the feeling you’re not accustomed to armed combat.”
The men surrounding them only pointed their lances. They didn’t appear to know what to do next, and in particular, had no idea how to attack an enemy on horseback. Merely holding a lance seemed about the extent of their skills.
“By the way, I lost an arm on the battlefield. But don’t start thinking that gives you a leg up. I doubt you have the equivalent experience under your belts.”
Risai released the reins and raised the sword in her left hand. Turning the horse with her legs, she headed toward the man she’d picked out as the leader of this motley crew. The rest of them had repeatedly looked at him as if asking what they were supposed to do next.
Risai didn’t brandish the sword. She held it level in front of her as she walked the horse forward. The point of the sword had almost reached the man’s throat when he shrieked and reared back so far he lost his balance and collapsed on the ground.
Stepping the horse over his prone body, she turned her sword toward his companion. He randomly thrust his spear at her. She sliced off the spear tip and in the same sweep of the sword flipped the shaft out of his hands. She spurred the horse toward the next man. Raising a pitiful cry, he crouched down and covered his head with his hands. Meanwhile, the rest of his companions ran for the hills.
The squatting man tossed aside his lance and tried to join them. Kyoshi jumped off his horse and pinned him to the ground with his staff, held him face down with a knee and twisted his arms behind his back.
“Nice move,” Risai said.
Kyoshi responded with an abashed grin.
“Well, then,” Risai said, jumping off her horse. “What are you hiding in the rika in Ginsen?”
Despite Kyoshi’s firm hold, the man managed to violently shake his head back and forth. “I—I don’t know anything!”
Risai chuckled. “Are you a rebel?”
That word prompted a voluminous response. “No, no, no!” he shouted. “Nothing of the sort! I am the furthest thing from a rebel! I wouldn’t dream of such a thing!”
“You know, a little raid on Ginsen would clear things up right away.”
“Forgive us. We acted without malice. We’ve got all our precious surplus goods stored in the rika. That’s all. Nothing more. I swear—”
“Then why did you attack us?”
“We thought you were a gang out to rob us. And if not now, if you found out about the surplus we had stored away, there was no guaranteed you would attack us some other time. That’s why—”
“Only two more questions. First, six years ago, did you see a band of refugees hauling a strange looking trunk?”
“I don’t know anything!”
“Second, around the same time, did you hear anything about a badly wounded military officer?”
“I didn’t hear anything! Really!”
Risai let out a long breath. She glanced at Kyoshi. Kyoshi nodded. Nothing the man said could be trusted. But for the time being, there was no good way to get at the truth.
“I understand. For now, we will take you at your word.”
With a tip of her head, Kyoshi released his hold on the man. He jumped to his feet and with a yelp ran back up the mountain trail.
Watching him sprint off, they heard the sound of horse’s hooves on the stony ground. Houto and Ki’itsu had returned.