14-5 Another death.
He looked down at the fresh grave in the snow-covered field. His childhood friend bent over and fell prostrate on the ground. He couldn’t say whether his friend’s big frame shook from grief or the cold. He draped his coat over his back.
“Gen’ei, let’s go home. You’ll freeze out here.”
Gen’ei buried his mother in that grave. She’d been so much more than the mother of his childhood friend. He was an orphan, but Gen’ei’s mother treated him like her own son. Though he grew up in the rika, she visited on a regular basis to look after the elderly and the children who lived there. No matter that her own husband also died young, she remained a woman of strong character and a big heart
And then at the beginning of winter, she was taken away.
Taken by a land gang holed up in a nearby mine. They needed a cook, they said, and dragged off a woman from the village. They resisted, of course, but were powerless to stop them. A young man was slain in the struggle, even though he had a child soon to be born from a ranka.
Gen’ei’s mother died during the winter and her body was returned to them.
Consoling his reluctant friend, he half-carried Gen’ei back to the village. When they came to his house, Gen’ei shook off the helping hand and stumbled inside by himself. Though the woman who’d died had been very much a mother to him, she’d been, to his friend, his only living parent. It was one thing to say he understood those feeling, quite another to form those painful emotions into words.
In low spirits, he returned to the rika, where he served as the superintendent. A big man cloaked in a threadbare overcoat was waiting for him.
“I take it nobody’s offered you dinner?”
“No,” the man said.
Though well on in years, his robust physique lent him the appearance of a small giant. His white hair was turning gray in places. Deep furrows creased a darkly tanned face. A ragged old scar crossed his left cheek to his mouth.
The day before, he’d brought the body back the village. At the very least, the superintendent could provide him lodging at the rika. Having accompanied his friend to the grave, this was their first opportunity to talk.
“You’ve concluded with the funeral?” the big man asked in a low, rumbling voice.
The superintendent nodded and bowed. “We are indeed very grateful. Let me introduce myself again. I am Teisetsu, the superintendent of the rika.”
As best he could remember, the man’s name was Hakugyuu. He wasn’t from around here. The word was, he was a traveler passing through.
He’d visited the mines while searching for someone, but was turned away. While checking out the surrounding areas, he ventured into an odd and ominous valley. Teisetsu and the other locals called it Kimonkan Valley. That was where Hakugyuu discovered the body. He took the body to the closest village. They told him she was from this village and he brought her here.
“I’m sure she would have wanted to return home as soon as possible.”
Hakugyuu had a kijuu with him. Bringing her straight to the village was much faster than delivering a note about where he’d found her. Teisetsu was impressed by the consideration Hakugyuu showed when he said, “She would have wanted to return home”
“I heard from the villagers the other day, but you are young for a superintendent.”
“Yes,” was Teisetsu only answer.
“I imagine some tough circumstances led to your current situation.”
Teisetsu nodded with another “Yes.”
“Those circumstances wouldn’t be related to the land gangs at that mine, would they?”
Teisetsu nodded again. “The woman was taken by one of the land gangs in Koubo. When they run short on help, they raid a nearby village and twist arms until someone steps forward.”
And then mercilessly run them into the ground.
“They’ve taken away a lot of people. That’s how a novice like myself ended up superintendent. We lose track of most, and far too many are eventually discarded like the woman in Kimonkan Valley.”
People living in the vicinity regularly made the rounds, but depending on the season, the bodies that turned up were often too badly decayed to be identified or had been ravaged by the beasts that nested in the hills and fields. The woman was one of the few returned to them intact.
“That valley is where they abandon the bodies?”
“Dead or alive.”
When they grew short on servants, the land gangs singled out a nearby community, threatened them to produce a “volunteer,” and then took them away, willing or not. They were seldom seen again. If lucky, their corpse turned up in a recognizable condition. Otherwise, they disappeared without a trace.
“And yet knowing that, when they ask for these volunteers, you hand them over? It’s hard to see any backbone on display in a story like that.”
Teisetsu didn’t answer. No, when push came to shove, they didn’t show any backbone. At the same time, he didn’t think an outsider would understand. Doing so was the only way they could stay alive.
An ironic smile tugged at the corner of the man’s mouth. “But isn’t that the way the world works? Better than a waging a war you can never win. You may preserve your pride by fighting back, but at the cost of many lives.”
Teisetsu hurriedly countered, “We surely shouldn't be slinking away just to avoid the inevitable reprisals.”
“Well, you should. Factor cowardice into the equation, along with the lives saved and lives lost too. That is the job of the superintendent.”
“Are—are you sure about that?”
The man looked straight at Teisetsu and nodded. Perhaps due to his age or because of other reasons, his eyes were faintly clouded with white. He was staring right at Teisetsu, so it surely didn’t mean he couldn’t see.
“It’s pitiful how spineless I can be.”
“It’s natural for you to think that way because it’s the truth. Rather than wringing your hands and moping about, you are protecting the people of the village.”
“Is just doing that enough? I defend the village by bowing to the land gangs, and going along to get along. Is that really enough?”
He hardly did a thorough job of that either, to say nothing of preventing harm from the surrounding villages. He hadn’t been able to do a thing. He couldn’t end the misery, or stop the suffering of the people around him, or arrest the inexorable decline of the kingdom.
“There are some things you can’t do anything about. But you keep those feelings in mind, and the time will come when you can do something.”
“Well, I’d like to think so.”
“Speaking of which, if you keep your eyes peeled, you might spot a wayfarer about these parts.”
“Someone traveling through?”
The man nodded. “A man with a military pedigree. Anything spring to mind? He has white hair and crimson eyes.”
At first, Teisetsu shook his head.
So Hakugyuu was searching for someone. There was nothing unusual about a man with white hair. Crimson eyes were unusual. He shouldn’t forget meeting someone like that. On the other hand, telling the color of somebody’s eyes was not always that easy. The available light had an effect, and without a clear look, the color of a person’s eyes often didn’t even register.
“I couldn’t say for certain. Perhaps.”
“You don’t say,” Hakugyuu muttered.
“Are we talking about a dangerous person?” Teisetsu asked with sense of foreboding. An enemy of this man, for example. A wanted criminal.
He slowly shook his head. “No. The emperor of our kingdom.”