14-2 The sun hung low over Bun Province.
Lanterns lit up the Sekirin Temple annex. Moku’u went out of her way to make sure the villagers from Rouan were well rested and fed before they departed. After they left, she glanced up at the darkening skies and let out a weary sigh that Risai couldn’t help overhearing.
“You look tired, Moku’u-sama. We should take our leave as well.”
Moku’u said with a soft smile, “When you get older, you’ve got stay on your toes just to make it through the day. But you needn’t worry on my account. Please take this opportunity to visit with us a while longer. There are limits to what we can do, but if we can help out in any way, please let us know. Over here—”
Responding to her beckoning gesture was the Taoist priest they had previously met at the shrine. Risai recalled that his name was Sodou.
“As you can see for yourselves, I am an old woman. The demands of my training and the related ascetic regimens can make it difficult to reach me. At such times, were messages to arrive from Genkan, there would be little I could do. So I will entrust such matters to Sodou. Do not hesitate to put him to good use. He can make the necessary personal arrangements, and though we are not wealthy, help with funding as well. You can leave all such matters in Sodou’s capable hands.”
Moku’u added with a smile, “In exchange, keep us up to date on how you are faring. The fate of the kingdom rests on finding His Highness, you see.”
“That would be fine with us.”
“Kenchuu has also indicated he would like to help in any way he can. Providing that Risai-dono does not find them an extra burden, I would appreciate you finding useful roles for the both of them.”
“We are deeply thankful,” Risai answered, looking on as Moku’u left the room. Yet she was less than satisfied with the events that had just transpired. Having previously given up on attracting outside help, she was confused about why it should be offered in such abundance now.
“I look forward to working with you again,” Kenchuu said.
“I appreciate it, but to be honest, I’m not sure why you and Moku’u-dono decided to lend us a hand.”
Kenchuu said with a gentle chuckle, “We both share the same goal of saving His Highness.”
“Though that would make more sense if we were the ones reaching out for your cooperation.”
“Well, then. How about because we owe you one?”
“You owe us one?” Risai echoed, shifting her attention as a woman stepped out from behind Kenchuu. She had been lingering in a corner of the room from the start. Risai had the feeling she’d seen her before—the hakushi wearing the white ribbon they’d met on the road to Sokou.
Kenchuu turned to the woman. “This is Shunsui.”
The woman bowed to Risai. “Some time ago, you went out of your way to look after us. We appreciate the help you gave us at that time.”
“In any case, it’s good to know you made it here safe and sound. And your daughter?”
“She is doing well. For the time being, I’ve left her in the care of our comrades.”
“Our fellow hakushi.”
“Ah,” Risai said.
She hadn’t realized there were hakushi here as well. Well, no. Didn’t the hakushi have a close connection with Sekirin Temple? In terms of religious doctrines, they did belong to a different sect, but she’d also heard that they received assistance from Sekirin Temple.
Sensing her confusion, Kenchuu said, “We do enjoy the gracious backing of Moku’u-sama.”
“We—” Not expecting him to use that particular pronoun, Risai said, “So you are a hakushi as well, Kenchuu? You and the woman, Shunsui, are colleagues?”
Kenchuu nodded. “We didn’t start with that understanding in common. I didn’t know who Shunsui was at all. It was only when it became clear to me that she was one of the hakushi that I realized we were, in fact, fellow adherents.”
Responding to Risai’s quizzical expression, he added, “We are not members of group with a defined organization. As companions who share the same resolve, we exchange information while each making our own way. There is no label that we apply to ourselves. Somebody called us the hakushi and the name stuck. That is fine with us. But we were originally survivors of Tetsui.”
Risai looked at Kenchuu, her eyes opening a little wider. Tetsui was the city with strong connections to Gyousou. It was because of those connections that Asen singled it out for destruction during the purges.
“Refugees, then? You went to Kan’you Mountain to sift through the tailings from the mines?”
“No,” Shunsui stated firmly. “His Highness is not dead. Moku’u-sama said so as well. We must find him.”
All the more surprised, Risai said to her, “Find him—meaning that Taoist priest.”
The Taoist who became a mountain wizard on Kan’you Mountain. If they met him, a new day would dawn.
Shunsui drew her lips into a thin line. She paused and then said, “We heard that His Highness was attacked by beasts on Kan’you Mountain. But he did not die. He has to be there somewhere. By concentrating on Kan’you Mountain, we should be able to trace his movements.”
Risai nodded to herself. So that’s what has been going on. She said aloud, “Was your daughter born in Tetsui?”
“To be precise, my daughter and I were born in Ryuukei.”
Ryuukei was located on the highway between Tetsui and Kan’you Mountain, at the fork of the mountain road that continued onto Kakyou. Heading from Tetsui to Kan’you Mountain, Ryuukei was the first city where travelers could stay the night. When returning from Kan’you Mountain to Tetsui, they’d arrive at Ryuukei the evening of the second day on the road.
Overlooking the valley that ran from Kan’you Mountain to Tetsui, Ryuukei was renowned for its majestic views. Along with an ancient shrine that was part of the Sekirin Temple circuit, it was home to many celebrated Taoist and Buddhist temples, and was a relatively big city compared to the others scattered across the valley floor.
“Tetsui once rebelled against the dictates of Emperor Kyou and refused to pay the levied taxes.”
“We’ve heard the tale. Tetsui shuttered and secured the warehouses and closed the gates. Gyousou-sama was dispatched to the city as commander of the Palace Guard.”
Shunsui nodded. “At the time, the people who gathered in Tetsui weren’t only residents of Tetsui. The Yoku Shire castle was located in Tetsui. Shuttering the warehouse was done with the consensus of Yoku Shire too. People from Ryuukei were in Tetsui too. They all raised their voices against the despotic actions of Emperor Kyou. That infuriated Emperor Kyou, and he sent to Palace Guard to crush them. But His Highness knew that Tetsui was in the right and instead rallied to their defense.”
Kyoshi blinked in surprise and said, “Please excuse the question, but are you referring to yourself as well? Didn’t these events take place long before you were born?”
“Of course,” Shunsui answered. “My grandparents were the ones saved by His Highness’s actions. To be sure, my grandfather hadn’t been born yet. But if His Highness hadn’t supported their cause, I wouldn’t be here today. Not only that. Had the general leading that army been anyone other than His Highness, Yoku Shire would have been destroyed as well. The way it was recently. They would have branded the people of Tetsui and Ryuukei rebels, executed them, and eradicated all the towns and villages in Yoku Shire. But thanks to His Highness, they escaped that fate. Not only escaped death. His Highness declared that the people of Tetsui were in the right and the uprising was not a crime. He protected the honor and dignity of Tetsui. That is why the people of Tetsui have preserved the story and debt of gratitude we owe His Highness.”
“I see,” said Risai.
Kenchuu again urged Risai and the others to sit down. “We lost Tetsui and all the surrounding towns and villages, probably because of our strong connection to His Highness. His Highness has a special meaning to the people of Tetsui. The same way His Highness holds Tetsui in a special light, we consider His Highness the same way. We were mightily depressed when we heard news of his death. But later determined that information was not reliable.”
Shunsui agreed and added, “The beast attacked His Highness on Kan’you Mountain. But he was spared due to Divine intervention.”
“Except he did not return to the Imperial Palace,” Risai said under her breath.
“Surely because he was wounded. He was able to run away, but not all the way back to the Imperial Palace.”
“Though able to run away, you do not believe he died in the mountains?”
“Such an outcome is impossible. Even when wounded, he would not be so easily killed. He always has with him the emperor’s armor and talismans to cure his injuries.”
“I do know of a bracelet he most certainly would have been wearing.”
“Wouldn’t he?” Shunsui’s eyes lit up. “He must be somewhere in hiding.”
“For six years?” Risai wondered.
“If not in hiding, then he must have fled somewhere far away. We are looking for the trail he left behind. Somewhere we are sure to find the clues that will lead us to him.” Shunsui looked down at her feet. “And if—against all odds—he has passed away, we must still find him and send him onto the next world in a proper fashion. The people of Tetsui will not abandon His Highness in life or in death.”
“I understand the feeling,” Risai said with a nod.
Kenchuu said to her, “In fact, there’s something I need to apologize to you about.”
“Back when we were on our way to Kan’you Mountain, when we were heading to Sokou, you left to have dinner with Kyuusan. I made inquiries about His Highness along the way.”
Risai cast her thoughts back. “Ah, that’s what you were up to.” He must have asked around to see if anyone had evidence of Gyousou being on Kan’you Mountain.
“At that time, you see, there were those who weren’t sure whether they should say anything or not and kept their mouths shut.”
“Kept their mouths shut?”
Kenchuu nodded. “About there being a cave-in on Kan’you Mountain.”
“Eh?” Risai raised her voice. “A cave-in?”
“During that time, the hakushi and searchers from Tetsui were traveling to Kan’you Mountain.”
At the height of the troop movements, word arrived in Tetsui that the emperor had disappeared. The citizens of Tetsui felt compelled to rally together and send out search parties. Some of them ventured onto Kan’you Mountain.
“What I heard was, back then as well, organized teams slipped through the cordons thrown up by the land gangs and went into the mines to sift through the tailings. They reported back about cave-ins on Kan’you Mountain. A few even offered first-hand accounts about hearing terrified voices and the sound of the cave-in itself.”
“And that was on Kan’you Mountain?” Risai asked.
“I believe so,” Kenchuu said. He tipped his head to the side, recalling old memories. “Not much was going on at Kan’you Mountain around that time. Bands of the poor and destitute went into the mountain to carry out sacks of gravel. But then the troubles with the land gangs broke out and they had the territory locked down ever since. People were cleared out of the surrounding areas and denied access to the mountain. But some of the refugees still snuck in. It was a life-or-death proposition as far as they were concerned.”
Risai agreed with a bob of her head.
Noting her reaction, Kenchuu continued. “They were headed into the tunnels when they heard the sounds of the cave-in, along with human cries or those of terrified animals. Perhaps they came from the soldiers attacking Gyousou and their kijuu.”
“Except we didn’t find anything of the sort on Kan’you Mountain,” Risai said. “We searched the interior. Granted, it wasn’t an exhaustive search. We saw the remains of cave-ins and landslides here and there, but no signs of any human involvement. We didn’t hear anything to that effect from the miners working on Kan’you Mountain either.”
“There wouldn’t be. What I was told was, they cleaned up the remains.”
Risai gave Kenchuu a startled look. “Cleaned up?”
“The refugee miners said that from the screams they heard, it sounded like human beings got caught in the cave-in. In that case, search parties should soon follow up to rescue them. But if that happened, they never got anywhere near the mines. With that in mind, they kept their eyes and ears open. But nobody showed up.”
So they cautiously entered the tunnels to see for themselves. They found evidence of the cave-in all around them. Kan’you Mountain was always on the verge of collapse. Remains of previous cave-ins were everywhere. That wasn’t the problem. If the authorities caught wind of dead bodies up there belonging to the land gangs or the Provincial Guard, searches and investigations were sure to follow. The refugees would never get back on the mountain.
“In order to hide any evidence, they dug up the places where it looked like bodies were buried. They turned up body parts and personal effects, so they figured out right away they were in the right spot. Clearing away the loose earth, they found the corpse of a soldier beneath a rock. Digging as far as they were able turned up six kijuu and eight soldiers wearing red armor.”
Kenchuu paused for a moment and grimaced. “And the bodies of another three more people in a mineshaft not far from the cave-in.”
Risai leaned forward in taut anticipation. “Anybody else?”
Kenchuu shook his head. “They didn’t turn up any more corpses after that. That may have been simply because they didn’t find them. They buried the bodies they uncovered in that mineshaft.”
Kenchuu then added, “I thought there might be something to the stories about a cave-in involving His Highness. I could imagine him managing to escape but getting injured in the process and finally being unable to go on any further. I searched the mountain myself for any traces he might have left behind. All I found was the corpse of what appeared to be a soldier of the Palace Guard stuffed into a fissure in the rocks.”
He returned to the mountain after that to continue the search. But in the meantime, Kyuusan and the land gangs took over and accessing Kan’you Mountain became impossible.
“Even so, I wanted to get back on the mountain to look for His Highness. To that end, I petitioned Moku’u-sama and secured her patronage in the form of the Sekirin Temple pilgrimage.”
Kenchuu and his fellow survivors of Tetsui didn’t belong to a formal organization. When Gyousou disappeared, Tetsui was still a going concern. At the time, Tetsui and the neighboring towns and villages talked it over and petitioned for volunteers to go into the mountains to continue the search. But then Asen destroyed Tetsui. The survivors dispersed and had to scatter throughout Bun Province to find shelter and places where they could continue their lives.
Kenchuu took refuge in Kakyou and later moved to a residence in Rin’u, where he established himself as a generous man of good character. He further built his reputation as an agent. While finding his own way to get by, Kenchuu also traveled to Kan’you Mountain by himself. He put no stock in the rumors that Gyousou had died. He stubbornly continued to believe he must be alive, and therefore must need help.
“Traveling back and forth whenever I had the time, I learned about others besides myself who were going into the mountains to search for His Highness.”
The survivors of Tetsui as well. They kept in touch in order to exchange information and, depending on the circumstances, come to each other’s aide. But not as an organized group. Kenchuu hadn’t formally taken on any kind of role as a mediator for the Tetsui refugees. He simply was the best known among the survivors. Kenchuu talked the matter over with the refugees he knew and then brought those discussions to Sekirin Temple, wondering if they might travel to the mountain under the guise of going on the pilgrimage.
Moku’u answered their petition in the affirmative, and offered her patronage by opening the shrines without condition to those displaying the white ribbons. She also negotiated with the land gangs and extracted a promise from them not to interfere with the activities of the pilgrims. In this way, Sekirin Temple arranged for the accommodations necessary for their travels and supported them behind the scenes.
“The word got passed along by word of mouth that Sekirin Temple had offered its patronage to pilgrims wearing the white ribbon. At the same time, information circulated about the locations that’d been searched and whether they’d yielded useful results. But no formal organization existed then or now. The survivors lived in fear of the purges, and also of getting ostracized by regular citizens who simply didn’t want to get involved in any way. So they kept mum about the fact they were refugees from Tetsui. They weren’t about to gather together and form some sort of organization. That’s why Shunsui didn’t know who I was. Although given that she was a hakushi, I was pretty sure she was a survivor of Tetsui.”
Shunsui agreed. “Wherever you settled down, there was bound to be somebody there in the know, a person with connections. Where I was living at the time, there was one such trustworthy man. He was well known to the Tetsui survivors in the area. He passed along information and offered advice. But he didn’t know anything about the refugees in other cities. When I took refuge at the shrine in Sokou, I was surprised to learn that Kenchuu was a survivor like me.”
“So that’s what was going on.” Risai let out a long breath. “You’ve been carrying out a search for His Highness this whole time. Have you turned up any clues?”
The hopeful air of expectancy in her question was met with dejected silence.
Kenchuu answered at length, his voice quiet with disappointment. “All we can say for certain is that His Highness is nowhere in the vicinity of Kan’you Mountain.”
“What about the possibility that refugees on the mountain offered him assistance?”
“I don’t think so. From the start, Sekirin Temple has been harboring refugees forced to go into hiding, having escaped from Bun Province with the assistance of the shusei. No stories about encountering anybody like His Highness ever cropped up in the rumors that circulated among them. In all my searches, I didn’t come across anything to suggest he’d been there either.”
“I see,” Risai muttered. “Kenchuu, would you happen to know how the refugees handled the stones they collected from the tailings?”
“I heard they traded with the Fu Clan. Seems the Fu Clan runs black market shops in Rin’u and Hakurou.”
Kenchuu nodded. “We haven’t given up. There are more than abandoned mines in the mountains. Logging cabins and prospecting shacks remain from back when they were cutting lumber for the mines. I’ve been intending to check out all of them, more than once if necessary.”
The white ribbons having been imbued with the power and authority of Sekirin Temple, they ventured into the mountains. And continued to do so.
“I know His Highness would be delighted to hear of your fealty and kindness,” Risai said. “Tetsui truly held a special place in his heart. His feelings for the people of Tetsui ran deep. That is true as well of his retainers. Many of the soldiers who participated in the attack on Tetsui later served as his retainers and on his senior staff. They all share a profound sense of gratitude for the people of Tetsui, who understood the depth of His Highness’s conflicted feelings and with broken hearts finally opened the storehouse.”
Shunsui buried her face in her hands. “Thank you.”
“We are the ones who should express our thanks to you. We are grateful from the bottom of our hearts that you persisted in searching for His Highness, heedless of the weather and the risks. But we would also plead with you to not take any more unnecessary risks. His Highness is most definitely still alive. We promise to search for his present whereabouts and find him. There is no need to go to such extremes, such as traveling into the mountains with a child in tow.”
“Anything worse happening to the people of Tetsui would only cause His Highness to grieve all the more.”
Shunsui cast down her eyes.
“Knowing His Highness, he would blame himself. That is the kind of person he is. I won’t tell you not to. I’ll fill in Kyuusan about the intentions of the hakushi, and importune with him to make sure you are granted safe passage. Kyuusan is a person who can reasoned with. I am certain he will not do wrong by you. But I would implore with you as well to not press your luck. I hope you would keep in mind that the greatest gift the people of Tetsui can now give His Highness is to live long and productive lives.”
When it came time for them to depart Sekirin Temple, Kenchuu and Risai left the building together, along with their traveling companions.
Passing through the temples gates, Kenchuu said, “We’ll need more help searching for His Highness. “I can recruit capable volunteers.”
“We’d appreciate it. But don’t you have your job as an agent?”
“I can leave that work to my apprentices. They’re also based in Rin’u, so it won’t be a problem.”
After a moment of thought, Risai said, “In fact, I’ve been thinking of moving to a new safe house.”
Rumors about them had reached as far as Rouan. Clearly, they had stayed in Rin’u too long. She explained this to Kenchuu and he agreed. “Probably the right thing to do. I’ll start looking around.”
“No,” Risai said. “I appreciate the offer, but I already have an idea.”
Risai nodded. Rin’u was a big city. It was easy to get lost in the crowds and fade out of sight. But preserving that anonymity took all the more effort. For Risai, being away from Hien was particularly trying. Of course, she wasn’t able to care for Hien as often as she liked. More importantly, it stung not have Hien available in an emergency. Given the extra precautions she had to take coming and going from city, there was no straightforward way to leave on a moment’s notice.
And when they did set out together, Kyoshi and Seishi only had their horses, so even if Risai was riding Hien, there was no way to shorten the journey. But there were times when speed was of the essence. Risai often thought that quickly making the round trip by herself would greatly reduce the time and effort required.
“Considering all the options, I think we’d be better off moving to a location more out of the public eye. Seeing how we’ve become the subject of rumors, we need place to lie low for a while.”
Kyoshi raised his voice, a dubious expression on his face. “You’re not talking about Rouan, are you?”
“No.” Risai shook her head.
When they got back to the safe house, Risai straightaway went to see Hien and left Rin’u just before the city gates closed. Clearly elated to be freed from her constraints, Hien spread her wings wide as they soared through the air. Risai was no less delighted.
With Risai in the saddle and Hien flapping her wings with great elan, they headed north at once, straight to Sokou. Risai had confirmed that Kyuusan was in town and arranged a meeting. It’d take a day on horseback to cover that distance. She arrived in less than a quarter of that time. Though it was the middle of the night, Kyuusan showed up to greet her.
“That’s one fine animal you rode in on,” he said, stepping out of the building. He looked at Hien with wide and admiring eyes. “She looks fast. But dangerous. I’ve arranged for you and the kijuu to share accommodations.”
“Understood,” Risai said. If she brought along a kijuu, those were the ground rules. “Kyuusan, I have a favor to ask of you.”
“Depends on what this favor entails.”
“I was wondering if we could settle down in Sokou for a while.”
Sokou was the idea she came up with. Sokou had good access to the major highways. Because it was controlled by the land gangs, the opening and closing times of the city gates wouldn’t be a constant concern.
“If Sokou won’t work out, another city would be fine too. Even one of the depopulated villages in the area. We’ll cover the rent.”
Kyuusan thought it over. “I can’t really recommend Sokou. Its place on the transportation routes is its most important feature. But miners from Kantaku gather here too. There’s no telling what kind of information about where people are from and who they are is going to leak out and get around. Elsewhere though, I don’t see a problem. Providing you lay low. Make a scene and the deal is off. But I figure that’s something you’ve gotten good at, Risai.”
“No reason to object, then. Once you find a place to live, we’ll do what we can to help out. Houses tend to fall apart when nobody’s living in them. However—” Kyuusan let out a long lungful of air and said under his breath, “Keep in mind that whatever we’re up to is none of your business.”
“Comes with the territory, I figure. We’ll keep our eyes closed to your activities.”
“I’ll ask around about any out-of-the way places for the kind of person who might simply insist on settling down here.”
“That works for me.”
With that agreement in place, and based on discussions with Kyuusan, Seisai turned out to be the right kind of place. Though located fairly deep in the countryside, it wasn’t far from Ryuukei, and sat adjacent to roads that headed to both Tetsui and Kakyou, making it as convenient a location as Anpuku. When trouble appeared on the horizon, the residents could hole up in the nearby mines and wait for the approaching storm to blow over.
Moreover, the scale of the town ranked just below that of Sokou.
The hour grew late as they hammered out the details. Kyuusan encouraged Risai to spend the night in Sokou.
She found the kind of shed she was looking for in the corner of the lot of the rented house. When she got there, blowing snow was whipping all around them. The surrounding landscape disappeared behind the curtains of driving snow. The gusting wind stung her eyes. Struggling to the shed and ducking out of the elements, she breathed a sigh of relief.
I wonder if everyone else is resting in a safe place tonight.
Risai snuggled up to Hien, using her as a windbreak against the drafts. Hien, in turn, curled her body around Risai. Breathing in the scent of dry straw, Risai tucked herself beneath Hien’s feathery warm wings.