hen Kyoshi and Risai and the rest of their party returned from Kan'you Mountain, Rin'u was covered with snow.
The snow was not deep and the winter wind froze it solid. More snow fell after that, leaving behind fields of white as far as the eye could see. The river that flowed through the outskirts of Rin’u iced over in the shallows along the banks. Farmland disappeared beneath the blanket of frozen snow. The livestock that once grazed on the hills was nowhere to be seen. Bun Province had settled down for its long winter nap.
The sky hugged the horizon. The heavy clouds hung low to the ground. Now and then, as if reminding itself of the season, the wind whipped up a flurry of snowflakes. But the snowpack never grew by much. A cold, dry wind blew instead. On some days, the gales gusted down from the mountains with enough force to bend the trees like strung bows, bringing with it the kind of cold that seeped into the marrow.
This was winter in Bun Province. Whether the clouds grew thick or thin, the days when the overcast skies parted enough to reveal a shining sun in the blue heavens were rare indeed.
Beneath the gloomy skies, here and there along the streets, mounds of white snow appeared overnight. The morning after they got back to Rin’u, one showed up in an alley not far from their safe house. Hearing the hubbub and looking out from the front gate, someone in the crowd of onlookers brushed away the snow to reveal the frozen body of a refugee.
“An old man,” someone observed with undisguised melancholy. “He’s holding a child. Must be a grandchild.”
“Maybe that explains the noise I heard last night,” a woman said in a despondent tone. “I thought somebody was knocking on the gate. I asked who was calling but nobody answered.”
“You didn’t take a look?”
“At that hour? I couldn’t risk opening the gate. What if they forced their way in?”
“More people are getting robbed these days. Well, it’s too late to do anything about it now.”
The assembled crowd sighed as one. People reacted to the pair of corpses with bowed heads and downward glances until someone covered them with a straw mat. They were left like that for a while, and then at some point they disappeared. The authorities must have been notified and had the remains taken away.
“The same thing happened while you were away at Kan’you Mountain,” Yotaku said as he set cups of steaming water on the breakfast table. “In that case, a middle-aged man.”
Civic morals in the neighborhood had gone downhill. Many buildings were abandoned, making them idea for refugees fleeing the cold. Unfortunately, that set off a scramble for structures still in good condition. The strong drove out the weak. With no place to go, their sad fate too often was to freeze to death in the streets.
As he stoked the fire in the stove, Yotaku said sadly, “There’s only so much we can do to help.”
The house they were living in had a single sleeping hearth in the main hall. Moreover, perhaps due to its age, it wasn’t very efficient, so they tended to gather in the kitchen around the stove. The house was drafty and the cold seeped in everywhere. At least with Yotaku keeping the fire going, the kitchen stayed warm.
Seishi said with a sigh, “We tend to lump them all together as refugees, but a bunch of strangers ending up in the same boat together doesn’t make them anything other than strangers. You can’t ask people who know nothing about each other to live under the same roof when nobody knows who is capable of what. Especially when theft and burglary is rife.”
“Nobody’s going to make much robbing the refugees.”
“There’s still a big difference between nothing and not much. A lot of thieves target the refugees. Because as far as the authorities are concerned, they don’t fall under their jurisdiction and thus are not deserving of their protection.”
The actual damages were meager in any case, and a search for the perpetrators was inevitably put off until some more convenient time. There was no lack of lowlifes willing to take advantage of those harsh realities. It was easy to get all high and mighty and blame faceless bureaucrats in the government. But Kyoshi knew full well that if a knock came at the gate in the middle of the night, he’d think twice before responding.
And when the wary Risai was on the premises, even if the visitor was a freezing refugee, getting past her would be no easy task.
Two days later, the woman whose gate the old man and child had approached was attacked and killed, her place robbed.
“It was karma,” people said.
“Just the opposite,” was Houto’s take. He lamented, “Because of that old man and the kid, this time she did open the gate.” She felt guilty about turning them away and couldn’t ignore the next visitor that came knocking.
The crime might even have been committed by someone in the neighborhood who anticipated such a reaction and took advantage of her rekindled compassion.
If only there was an emperor on the throne. If only the government worked the way it was supposed to.
At times like this, the fallen state of the world was almost too much for anyone to bear.
Ki’itsu visited on a daily basis, bringing with him rumors along those same lines. The corpses that showed up here and there. The crimes committed here and there. Not the kind of conversational topics that brightened the day. The day after the woman got killed, he arrived with a different tale to tell.
“I caught wind of an interesting story,” he said when he walked into the kitchen. “I heard there’s a business in Rin’u that deals in unlicensed stones.” He brushed the snow off his overcoat. Snow was falling again. “Seems it’s been trading under the table for some time now. They buy whatever stones you bring them, no questions asked.”
“Where is this place?”
“The rumors put the storefront on the other side of the city and the base of operations in Hakurou.”
West of the You Range that included Kan’you Mountain, Hakurou occupied the foothills of Mount Hakurou, the provincial capital’s Ryou’un Mountain. Ba Province lay further west of Hakurou through the depths of the mountains.
“There is a wealthy and well-known merchant in Hakurou. The proprietress is Fu Hoyou. The Hakurou Fu clan is known not only in Bun Province but throughout Tai. They started out small in the gem trade and have grown by leaps and bounds, expanding the network of their trading partners. They enjoyed the patronage of Emperor Kyou during his dynasty and accumulated vast amounts of wealth.”
Hoyou’s husband died when she was still young. Thereafter, she single-handedly built a fortune. She had two sons and one daughter. When they became adults, she handed the business over to them and retired to the outskirts of Hakurou, though rumors said it was a retirement in name only, and Hoyou continued to wield the real authority in the company.
“Businesses operated by the Fu clan are located throughout Tai. They especially proliferated in their home territory in nearby Bun Province. Most act as middlemen, buying uncut stones and selling them to gem processers. They also do their own faceting and polishing in house and sell the products at retail. They’ve opened boutiques in every big city in the kingdom and cater to the wealthy and powerful.”
Risai nodded. “I recall seeing them in Kouki too. Are you saying the Fu clan is buying unlicensed stones?”
“Of course, the boutiques operated by the Fu clan would never be caught doing so. The rumors say they deal in unlicensed stones using storefronts that can’t be tied to them, while pocketing the profits under the table.”
Though now closed, A Fu store had operated in Rin’u until recently. And then a small shop quietly opened on a side street lined with upscale establishments.
“An old man in the neighborhood clued me in. He said he never saw anybody behind the counter during the day.”
The store ostensibly operated as an intermediary in the gem trade. Nobody was sure what actually went on inside. It was closed for business every time he checked. The doors facing the street were usually shut. Perhaps to provide access to the place, one set of doors was left open.
“Inside the door was a narrow foyer and a small window set into the wall opposite. Despite giving every appearance of being closed, refugees were observed bringing packages to the shop. According to the old man, they stepped into the foyer, knocked on the window, the window opened, they handed over their packages, and one way or another took money in exchange.”
The people bringing the goods came and went in broad daylight while the proprietor and the staff never showed their faces. The old man shook his head and said it looked awful fishy to him. Then late one night, he saw someone leaving the shop.
“He says it was a person who worked at the Fu store in Rin’u.”
“One of their employees?”
“Not exactly. The old man said that he was a craftsman who worked as a polisher at the Fu store on a piecework basis. They crossed paths a number of times back then. Up until last year, he definitely was working at the Fu store.”
The first time the old man saw him in his neighborhood, he thought he’d quit the Fu clan and had gone independent. But then a few days later, he ran into him making a delivery to the Fu store.
“The old man called out, wondering if he was still working as a subcontractor. In fact, he explained he was living in the same neighborhood as the shop. Two days later, that shop closed its doors.”
“It does,” Ki’itsu agreed. “The old man thought so too. He asked the agent who rented out the place. The agent had no idea who the actual backers were. They’d occupied the premises for two months. According to the agent, they weren’t interested in a lease longer than half a year. Every six months, they packed up and moved somewhere else.”
The way the system worked, they bought unlicensed stones from the refugees and sold them to the Fu boutiques. They set up shop in easily overlooked locations and moved every six months in order not to attract unwanted attention. Whenever they moved, they informed the refugees of the new address so they wouldn’t lose any of their clients.
“They must be still doing business here in Rin’u. We don’t know where. There is likely a whole network of the same sorts of shops from Rin’u to Hakurou.”
Risai said, “If we divvied up the stores and kept an eye on them, we could make a note of the refugees using them and track them down. They might know something about Gyousou-sama. Though I don’t see how we could pull that off with the resources we have. It’d be better to go right to the source.”
Ki’itsu nodded. “The head house of the Fu clan in Hakurou?”
“Doesn’t Hoyou-dono still pull the strings? She supposedly retired and is living in a villa called Gamon Temple.”
“A Taoist temple?”
Ki’itsu shook his head. “Gamon Temple was deconsecrated during the era of the empty throne.”
Gamon Temple was originally an independent Taoist temple not attached to any sect. The founder of the temple garnered renown as a diviner. She started off with a small shrine and was finally able to build a large temple. But when the founder died, repeated battles over successorship divided the followers and eventually left them scattered to the four winds.
Only the large temple remained, now with no legal owner. During the troubles with the land gangs, Hoyou snatched up the deed to the property.
“The building was officially renamed, but people had gotten used to calling it Gamon Temple. The name stuck.”
From the start, gemstones from the mines couldn’t be excavated or sold without a government permit. Refugees who scavenged for stones couldn’t cash them in without those black-market channels. They made a point of picking them up along their journeys. Had they found any on Kan’you Mountain around the time Gyousou disappeared, the odds were good they had used one of these Fu branch storefronts. It was also possible that the Fu dealers might have some familiarity with their whereabouts.
Risai said, “I’d like to check it out. But—”
But Hakurou aligned itself with Asen quickly and early on. It was the first city where the “illness” struck. In fact, Gyousou appointed the Bun province lord. Though not one of Gyousou’s retainers, he’d been on good terms with him and was considered a popular and amiable man. It was precisely because of his disposition that he was appointed province lord of problem-ridden Bun Province. And then he betrayed Gyousou at the first opportunity.
Now Hakurou was at Asen’s beck and call. Needless to say, Risai would be taking a risk getting anywhere near the place.
“I think Risai-sama should keep her distance,” Seishi said. “I’ll go there instead and look around.”
Risai nodded and turned to Houto. “What do you think, Houto?
Houto shook his head. “I wonder—”
Tending to the firewood at the stove, Yotaku spoke up. “Hakurou and the surrounding towns aren’t on that high a state of alert.”
“You don’t say. Yotaku, I take you’ve been around these parts as a shin’nou.”
“The master’s circuit is confined to the vicinity of Rin’u. The shin’nou guild in Rin’u collects information like that.”
According to Yotaku, Hakurou and its environs were put on high alert only before and after the troubles. Martial law was imposed right before the troubles to handle the land gangs and the chaos they brought with them. But for whatever reason was relaxed during the troubles.
“Strict identify checks were dropped for a while. At the height of the purges, the controls grew considerably tighter for a period of time but gradually relaxed after that. From what I hear, those kinds of checks aren’t much carried out these days. Though in Risai-sama’s case—”
One result of Asen’s grip on power was that Risai now bore the blame for Gyousou’s regicide.
“Six years have passed since then. In fact, nobody in Rin’u ever checks your identity either.”
There was a time, right after the purges, when anybody entering Bun Province had little to no chance of getting into one of the larger cities. But the security was just as strong in Rin’u back then, and now a wanted criminal had much less to worry about. Risai’s missing arm likely allayed suspicions as well.
“Kyuusan noticed, didn’t he?” said a concerned Seishi. “Aren’t there still people around who believe that Risai-sama was a traitor? Some of them have long memories and will be on the lookout. We should keep that in mind and take the necessary precautions.”
“With no evidence of Gyousou-sama turning up in the vicinity of Rin’u, we need to expand the scope of our search east and west. Though Hakurou presents more dangers, it’s also a city where people gather. And that makes it a place where we can gather information. We may need to shift our base of operations there too. We can’t keep putting it off forever.”
“You make a good point.”
“I’d like to go there at least once and see for myself what kind of risks we may face.”
Seishi thought it over for a minute and nodded in agreement.