Hills of Silver Ruins

Chapter 27

12-2 It certainly helped that Gamon Temple wasn’t located in Hakurou proper but at the outskirts. Leaving the safe house in Yotaku’s care, they departed Rin’u. Ki’itsu went with them this time. The name of Fukyuu Temple might prove useful when arranging a meeting with Hoyou.

From Rin’u to Hakurou on horseback took a little over a week. They reached Kakyou the day after they left. The next day, before noon, they passed the area where Gyousou disappeared. Seishi pointed out the spot where Gyousou departed from the column. Seishi hadn’t been in Bun Province at the time so his information was second hand. But it was at the foot of a bridge that crossed a mountain stream, near to where the mountain path left the main highway and headed towards Ryuukei.

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And from here they must have headed toward Kan’you Mountain.

Accompanied by a security detail comprised of Asen’s retainers, they climbed the mountain trail toward Ryuukei. Only the soldiers came back down again.

The feelings that welled up were difficult to bear, knowing that here was where everything began.

Surrounded steep cliffs, the narrow path lay there still and frozen. No one used it now. Not a single footstep disturbed the fallen snow.

Around evening the next day, they came to a fork in the road that veered off toward Tetsui. The bleak and desolate landscape spread out before them. Snow fell the night before. Swirled about by the wind, the blowing snow cast a veil of white across the scene. The region from here to Tetsui bore the brunt of Asen’s purges. The area around Tetsui in particular had become uninhabited, with most of the villages destroyed and the riboku withered.

People wouldn’t settle in a town without a riboku. In administrative terms, they were deemed abandoned and cut off from financial assistance. The towns along the road repaired the buildings and achieved a degree of revitalization. But for the time being, with no one left to till the soil, winter had turned the farms into a frozen wasteland.

By the sixth day of their journey, the tension began to mount. Off in the distance, the snow-capped Ryou’un Mountain appeared through the haze. This was Mount Hakurou of the city of Hakurou. The mountain coming into view normally meant they’d be close enough to see a corresponding ramping up of security, with increasing numbers of gendarmes posted on every street corner.

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But none of that was on display in Bun Province. No one challenged them when they entered a town. Security patrols were nowhere in sight. In fact, the deserted streets looked no different than those in any other city. It was apparent at a glance that the arm of the government did not even extend that far. The many refugees gathered under shelters and windbreaks, where they huddled together on a single straw mat around a fire.

“Abandoned to their own devices—and here at Asen’s knee,” Risai said, a puzzled look in her eyes as they took in their surroundings.

Seishi nodded. “I’d heard the rumors. It looks like they’re true.”

Seishi had also kept his distance from Hakurou. Reports that there were no special security measures in force reached his ears, but he hadn’t given them much credence. The circuit he’d traveled with the shin’nou was confined to the territory around Rin’u, so he didn’t have any first-hand knowledge about Hakurou. He’d heard through the shin’nou grapevine that public morals were on the wane, and believed he could naturally expect to see the authorities making at least a reasonable effort to maintain the rule of law.

“But if you stop to think about it, tight security would make it difficult to carry on a trade in unlicensed stones. The existence of the black market itself could be taken as proof of the decay in civil order.”

Nevertheless, they still took care to avoid the security checkpoints as they drew closer to Hakurou.

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There wasn’t any good way to avoid the prying eyes of other travelers. But for good or ill, these were the coldest months of the year in Bun Province. Everyone was wearing the same layers of mantles and overcoats with hats and caps pulled low over the eyes. More than a few had scarves wrapped around their mouths and noses. At this rate, nobody could identify anybody.

Entering Hakurou itself would mean submitting to a passport check. But Risai, like Taiki, carried traveling papers both from Touka and from the Kingdom of Kei under different names, so that wasn’t a problem. Moreover, Gamon Temple was located outside the Hakurou barrier wall.

“Built thanks to the wasteful extravagance of Emperor Kyou,” Risai muttered, glancing up at the majestic structures of the temple. Her breath escaped from the gaps in her scarf in white puffs that froze to her eyelashes.

The city circled the base of Mount Hakurou. Located outside a crook in the barrier wall, the temple gardens filled the bottom of a valley bracketed by steep ridges. The soaring towers of the enormous gate that sealed off the entrance to the valley came into view. High walls circled the compound to the right and left, blocking much of the view beyond. The sculpted landscape spread out along the valley floor. Toward the far end of the valley, barely visible off in the distance, multistoried pagodas dotted the side of the mountain.

Risai nodded to herself. Situated along the valley channel were what appeared to be Buddhist or Taoist temples of various sizes, hardly the gardens of a country manor.

“Hoyou spends most of the year here at Gamon Temple. It’d be no exaggeration to say she’s spending her retirement expanding the real estate, constructing her own mountain villa of the gods.”

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“Like she’s the Queen Mother of the West,” Risai said.

But in that moment, Risai felt a cold chill. She had once been granted an audience with the Queen Mother of the West. Because the Queen Mother granted requests for children, she was adored as the great mother of them all. But Risai found her to be a goddess as cold and heartless as a stone.

What kind of woman is this?

Ki’itsu requested a meeting, using the name Fukyuu Temple to establish his bona fides. After an interminable wait in one of the buildings attached to the gate, they were finally led to one of the even bigger towers in front of the gate.

The way the strange stone pagoda blocked the view of the valley, it more resembled a gigantic spirit wall.

“Is this part of the original structure?” Risai asked in a low voice.

Ki’itsu wasn’t sure himself. “This is the first time I’ve been here. But I don’t think it was part of the temple.”

Risai nodded. Like a Buddhist temple or a Taoist temple or, for that matter, a government building, the structure had a form and a structure characteristic to its use and purpose. These high pagodas did not fit the pattern. The buildings at the ends of the two wings all had three floors and high ceilings, and were build such that they jutted outwards. The snow-covered roofs perched awkwardly atop the tall and angular structures almost as an afterthought.

The double roofs rising above the corners of the large central roof and buildings, and the far ends of the wings, must be watch towers. The watch towers were connected by a low hanging roof. The bare stone surface of the outer walls disappeared beneath brightly painted engravings of birds and flowers.

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Blue dragons wrapped around the red stone pillars attached to the outer wall, columns that appeared more ornamental than structural. The garish metal fittings decorating the huge doors traced out patterns of dragons soaring amidst dreamy landscapes of smoke and clouds.

Ostentation, was the word that rose up in Risai’s thoughts. The empty displays of wealth and vanity covered every square inch, down to the walls, the roofs and doors, and the iron latticework shutters over the windows.

To the right and left of the gardens, connecting the gate towers to the main pagoda facing the entranceway, were smaller buildings that resembled shrine halls. They crossed a courtyard, neatly swept clean of snow, to one of these side halls.

Seishi and Houto remained there. Accompanied by Kyoshi and Ki’itsu, wearing their Taoist robes, Risai proceeded to the pagoda. They were shown inside the pagoda by a woman, a maidservant, based on her garb.

The interior of the pagoda differed little from the exterior. The floral decor covered the walls and pillars. Everywhere they looked there were more ornamental vases and sculptures and folding screens covered with gemstones mounted in intricate bas-relief fretwork. All this pomp and splendor served no apparent function except to put the owner’s wealth on display.

They strode down a long reception hall that was as warm as it was extravagant. Through a large engraved door, covered with gold leaf and precious stones, the building continued on. The floor and walls here were tiled with white stone. Trimmed in red and gold, this must be the main hall.

Tall, narrow doors were set into the facing wall. The courtyard beyond was visible through the glass panes, landscaped with an arbor and massive, curiously-shaped boulders.

Sitting with her back to the windows must be Hoyou herself. She appeared to be a woman of around fifty. Pale-skinned and plump. The figure of a kindly mother, except for the luxurious clothing, the priceless jewelry, and more than anything else, the cunning glint in her eyes that utterly betrayed her outward appearance

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“So what business does Fukyuu Temple have with me?” Hoyou asked with a soft smile as she lounged on the luxurious ottoman.

Ki’itsu handed her a letter of introduction and offered her a polite bow, his left hand clasped around his right fist. “We are grateful for granting us an audience.”

He proceeded to formally introduce himself and the rest of their party. The two of them exchanged a few harmless platitudes. The pleasantries continued on for a while, when Hoyou finally said in an expectant tone of voice, “And so?”

Now Ki’itsu put on a more serious face. “In fact, my companions are searching for someone. They heard from various sources that refugees have been trading in gemstones under your auspices.”

“Oh, nonsense.” Hoyou held a bejeweled fan to her mouth and laughed. “A government permit is required to mine precious stones. Those poor refugees could not possibly get their hands on the necessary licenses.”

“Ah, yes. I apologize. Supposing that such transactions were going on, we did not come here to find fault with those actions. The refugees require their daily sustenance too, if they wish to survive these hard times. Were Hoyou-sama helping out in such a manner, Fukyuu Temple would only offer its thanks.”

“How broadminded of you,” Hoyou said, a smile rising to her red lips. “However, it is our policy not to accept unlicensed stones. In any case, considering the taxes levied on traded stones by the imperial and provincial governments, even if pursuant to charitable ends, it would be highly remiss of us to go around flaunting the law.”

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In the face of this brazen display of feigned ignorance, Ki’itsu only answered, “Oh, is that so?”

Then he said, “As I mentioned a moment ago, we are searching for somebody. We have reason to believe there are refugees in the stone trade who might have knowledge of that person’s whereabouts. But precisely because they are refugees, we have no good idea of how to get in contact with them. We were hoping to avail ourselves of the good offices of a person with connections among the refugees.”

“If that is the reason behind your visit, then you have come on a fool’s errand. I would think the good folk of Fukyuu Temple would be much more familiar with any goings-on in the refugee community.”

There’s no need to guess at what she means by that, Risai thought. That Fukyuu Temple sheltered refugees was known even in these parts. Hoyou was wondering aloud why they weren’t asking those refugees. Because there must be something they weren’t telling her.

Hoyou said with a theatrical laugh, “Didn’t you hear? I retired. I spend my time tending to my gardens. I have no interest in the materialistic world.”

“And what wonderful gardens they are.”

“Alas, the gardens are still very much a work in progress. I hope you will visit again when they are done so I can show off the finished product.”

In contrast to her words, her attitude made clear the contempt Hoyou had for Ki’itsu and the rest of them.

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Against her better judgement, Risai blurted out in a no less sardonic tone of voice, “You certainly have not spared any expense.”

“Please. Not at all.”

“The Fu clan are the wealthiest merchants in Bun Province. Thanks to the preferential treatment given you by Emperor Kyou.”

Hoyou smiled, and the disdain was clear on her face. “Emperor Kyou was so gracious as to become a regular customer of ours.” She added with shameless pride, “He took a liking to our product line. If we told him we made something for His Highness, he purchased it sight unseen.”

“At a generous markup for yourselves.”

“Of course. He was always happy to meet our asking price. A much appreciated and valued client.” She stated matter-of-factly, “Sure, we could have gotten on our high horses and thumbed our noses at those opportunities. In which case, worse bureaucrats would have handed the business to worse merchants than ourselves. As long as the wealth was getting spread around, better it fall into the hands of those who knew how to use it best.”

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“Who knew how to use it best, eh?” Risai said, glancing around at the gaudy excess surrounding them.

“The poor do take great pains to gather up stones that we strike a hard bargain to acquire. Be that as it may, as long as they are put to good use, all’s well that ends well in our books.” Hoyou smiled softly and sat back in the ottoman. She again pressed the fan her mouth and narrowed her eyes as if looking down at them from a command height. “I decide what is good and what is not.”

Her tone of voice changed. Risai didn’t respond. Whatever did not appeal to this woman’s self-interest simply escaped her notice. No argument was going to change her mind otherwise.

“Of course, we’ve been trading in stones. And we will continue to do so.” Hoyou said with a hearty laugh, “It’s the charitable thing to do, right? The quality of the shipments we’re bringing in from other gem fountains means we don’t really need the stones the refugees manage to scrape together. But like you said, they have to put food on the table too.”

Hoyou added, “We are always keeping an eye on our margins. Buying low and selling high is the foundation of all business. Sellers spread the word around about how we bargain down the price. But if they were really dissatisfied with our terms, they would take their product to another trading house. They can complain all they want if they keep coming to us. It’s all good.”

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“And if there aren’t any other trading houses?”

“Well, that is a possibility.” Hoyou raised her voice and laughed again. “Not many merchants take shipments with no questions asked about the provenance. Though please don’t take that to mean we are flaunting the law. We simply do not press them about how they came into their possession. If they show up with stones, we assume they have the necessary permits. After all, you can’t mine or transport precious stones without a government license. Were we to starting nitpicking and raising doubts, it would inevitably come back to hurt the business.”

That itself was not against the law, and no basis for outside criticism, Hoyou insisted. As far as she was concerned, the refugees who showed up to sell the stones they’d acquired were her customers. The polite thing to do was not ask too many questions and hand over the money.

“Were a conversation to go off on an odd tangent, about the strange provenance of a particular stone, somebody might end up saying something they shouldn’t. That’s why most of our buyers never meet face to face with the sellers. They stick to the business at hand, like they’re told. So they’re not likely to be privy to whatever rumors are going around amongst the refugees, or to learn any of their names or faces.”

Hoyou let out a dramatic sigh. “It is most unfortunate that you came all this way for nothing.”

She smiled sweetly and raised her hand in a beckoning gesture. She called out to the maidservant who had withdrawn to a corner of the hall, “Our guests will be leaving now.”

The maidservant hurried over. At the same time, several manservants appeared at the doors behind them. Together they hustled Risai, Ki’itsu, and Kyoshi out of the room and out of the building to where Seishi and Houto were waiting. And then with superficial politeness, they were summarily evicted from the premises and left outside the gate in the freezing cold.

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“Well, that was interesting, Ki’itsu said with a sardonic shake of his head.

Houto asked what happened and Kyoshi explained with an equally wry smile of his own. “That woman is a piece of work. I think formidable is the word I’m looking for.”

In any case, the best option left to them now was to make their own inquiries at the trading houses. They’d planned to see Hakurou up close all along. Kyoshi and Houto could check out the Fu shops by themselves if necessary.

As they trudged down the snowy-packed road to Hakurou, Risai said, “We might not have gotten anything useful anything out of her, but I still have to wonder if Hoyou knows more than she’s letting on.”

“Do you think she’s hiding something?” Seishi asked with heightened interest.

Risai shook her head. “I couldn’t say if she’s hiding information we want to know. But she’s bound to be keeping a lot close to the vest. Maybe some clandestine deals shadier than her usual schemes.”

“Is that really all that’s going on?” said Kyoshi. When Risai cast a questioning look over her shoulder, he added, “I looked around the place the best I could while you two were talking. There is something off about the whole estate.”

“Something off?”

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“You could see the courtyard through the windows. The arbor and the rock garden mostly blocked the view. Beyond them I could make out what looked like a wooded courtyard. And in the distance, more buildings with people going in and out. Laborers and tradesmen, they all looked like.”

“So the buildings are under construction?”

“All the stranger, given a villa that luxurious. You’d expect the servants to wear clothing appropriate to their surroundings. The maidservant who served as our guide was wearing whatever luxurious clothing the wealthy deck the hired help in these days. But we encountered servants dressed like that only at the gate tower and the reception hall. The rest looked like common laborers and tradesmen trundling in and out of buildings that did not appear to be under construction. More like it was a manufacturing facility of some sort.”

“A manufacturing facility—”

While Risai pondered the scene being described, Seishi said, “Speaking of which, there were a few odd things that caught my attention as well. The main building facing the gate tower is constructed entirely out of stone. That huge structure might be better described as a parapet with an unobstructed view of the courtyard.”

“It does lend itself to that impression.”

Seishi said, “And not only that. I took a look around while we were waiting in the side hall. The front courtyard from the gate tower to the main building is a completely enclosed space. It’s pretty large and the layout is fairly complicated. But that courtyard and the corridor passing through it are sealed off from the rest of the compound.”

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In addition, he pointed out, “The doors to that main building appeared to be bronze. They are engraved and decorated with gold leaf and bear all the hallmarks of the rest of the luxurious excess. But there is nothing normal about a solid bronze door. The windows overlooking the front courtyard are located high on the walls. They are also embellished with engravings and gold and silver trim. And covered with sturdy iron latticework shutters. The windows without shutters are too small for a man to crawl through.”

“That definitely is the case.”

“The overbuilt and reinforced main building and corridors are more like a castle, which makes the front courtyard a barbican. The typical barbican projects beyond the castle walls. This one carves out a space inside the barrier wall but would function the same.”

“So when an enemy charges through the gate into the front courtyard, they can be attacked from all directions.”

Seishi nodded. “Think about it in that context, and the small windows would function as the equivalent of parapets, with archers firing down on the courtyard from the mezzanine floor.”

Risai glanced over her shoulder at the buildings behind them. Was Gamon Temple preparing to defend itself against an attack?

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They returned to the main road. They changed the plans they had for the day and instead kept an eye out for roads leading to Gamon Temple. Trudging through the snow, they climbed to one of the nearby peaks overlooking the temple. From where they were standing, not all of the temple proper came into view. They could see the luxurious gardens and the line of large and small buildings, but the people entering the leaving the buildings were too far away to make out what they were wearing.

There didn’t seem to be all that many people visiting Gamon Temple itself and not that many milling around inside. They did observe a wagon train of three carts rolling through the gates. As far as they could tell, the carts weren’t carrying building or landscaping materials. Rather, firmly packed wooden boxes and heavy ones at that. A good guess was these were shipments of raw gemstones, though others looked like they contained large amounts of charcoal.

“Maybe for a stove or hearth?”

“You mean, a sleeping hearth?”

A sleeping hearth heated the room by channeling smoke from a fire beneath the floor. The main hall they’d passed through had been warm enough that they didn’t need to wear their overcoats. It would not be unusual for someone as wealthy as Hoyou to heat the entire building using the same kind of apparatus.

“I don’t think so. You see how big and tall that smokestack is? You wouldn’t need something of that size for a sleeping hearth. Those are the dimensions you’d need to produce very high heat.”

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“Very high heat,” Risai echoed.

“Kyoshi nodded. “For example, to smelt metals, perhaps as part of the ore refining process.”

Unbelievable, Risai muttered to herself.

Mines and the management of the extracted ore fell under the authority of the Ministry of Earth. The administration of the mines themselves belonged in the portfolio of the Suijin, the Minister of Land Management and Construction, while the transportation of extracted ore was the province of the Shishi in the Ministry of Earth.

However, because the metals produced during the refining process could just as easily be made into currency as into weapons for the military, their disposition could not be left up to the whims of markets forces. Thus, refining and metal production fell under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Heaven. Two completely different ministries with two completely separate lines of authority. Nobody was allowed to wear both hats at the same time.

Traders who handled gemstones could also deal in ore. But they could not refine the ore. Hoyou was doing both. Everything about this business was illegal.

“But, of course. Another one of her black market operations.”

Gamon Temple was encircled by formidable defenses. Because of the great amount of wealth stored there, it would be fair to say. But that wasn’t as compelling a reason as running an illegal metal refinery and foundry.

“Right here in the shadow of Hakurou?” said an amazed Houto. “A mere stone’s throw away?”

“They must have bribed the right corrupt government officials. Or they are actively conspiring with people in high places.”

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The government didn’t turn corrupt overnight. During the past six years, bureaucrats and politicians alike had free rein to pursue their own self-interests.

Accompanied by Ki’itsu, Risai and Seishi returned to an inn in a town on the road not far from Hakurou. Kyoshi and Houto continued on to Hakurou, where they rented rooms. The next day, just to make sure, they staked out the Hoyou boutique. It was located in the center of the city. No refugees got anywhere near the place.

Obviously, they reported back to Risai, the trade in unlicensed stones was left to branch stores that were specially equipped to handle it.

“How many branch stores there are and where they are located is anybody’s guess,” Risai mused as they left the inn. “If the rumors hold true, even if there are refugees coming and going, we would have no idea about the where or the when.”

“That’s right,” said Seishi. He hushed his voice. “As expected, we’re being watched.”

Risai looked around with a nonchalant glance. The two men were casting sidelong looks at them from an alleyway next to a nearby shop. They stood there, hunched over in the cold.

They’d picked up the tail returning from the ridge overlooking Gamon Temple. Halfway down the mountain, they noticed the two men lurking in the tall grass alongside the path. Risai and Seishi exchanged looks and feigned ignorance of their presence.

The men stuck with them all the way to the inn. At first, Risai wondered if they were familiar with her background and wanted status, but that didn’t seem to be the case. The two didn’t behave like regular gendarmes and certainly weren’t any good at being spies. They were amateurs at best.

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“Gamon Temple, you think?” Seishi asked.

Risai nodded. That was the conclusion she came to as well. Gamon Temple had dispatched a couple of underlings to keep an eye on them.

“It’s looking more and more like something shady is going on here.”

As long as they weren’t gendarmes, Risai had nothing to worry about. Gamon Temple was obviously on guard about whatever it was up to, and Risai was curious to see just how on guard. She and Seishi pretended they weren’t there. Then the day before, one of the two men skulking about near the inn was replaced by a new face. Which suggested that Gamon Temple was intent on seeing this stakeout through to the end.

The spies continued to spell each other off and tailed them around the city until they returned to Rin’u. Although no longer watching them around the clock, it wasn’t long before they noticed the same men loitering around their home base in Rin’u, still keeping an eye on them.

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