16-5 That evening, Hoyou introduced Risai to a dignified man of sixty or so.
“The provincial Minister of Winter. He goes by the name of Tonkou.”
Tonkou was one of those friends in high places who supported Hoyou behind the scenes. Risai had to wonder to herself. The provincial and imperial ministries were approximately equivalent in their duties and functions. As a member of the Rikkan, Tonkou certainly counted as a high-ranked official. Though in terms of its relative importance, his was the lowest seat in the government, not considered an influential voice in the provincial court.
On the other hand, while that did leave them largely free of interference from the provincial court, Hoyou being left to her own devices thanks to the patronage of the Minister of Winter was rather unexpected.
“This old fox rose straight up the ranks from the trades,” Hoyou said with a grin, the implication being that Tonkou was not one of those senior statesmen who ended helming the ministry at the end of a succession of convenient coincidences and political appointments.
Risai asked, “Since the dynasty of Emperor Kyou?”
“From before that,” he answered in a deep voice.
Tonkou’s answer didn’t surprise Risai. The artisans and tradesmen who worked in the Ministry of Winter steered clear of the political turf wars that plagued other departments. As a consequence, it was not unusual to find ministers there who had occupied their posts for unusually long times.
And although she was aware that such people existed, this was the first time she had ever met a court official who’d served previous to the dynasty of Emperor Kyou.
When she said as much, Tonkou chuckled. “Well, among the artisans in the Ministry of Winter, not even this old fox qualifies as an old timer. More than a few knew the emperor from at least three dynasties ago. The Ministry of Winter holds a somewhat unique place in the Imperial Court as well, what with these gray areas beyond the reach of the usual political influences. That can give you a bit more latitude.”
“What is life like in the provincial palace these days?”
They knew that the province lord and the ministers had been suddenly struck down by the illness. But in concrete terms, they didn’t have the slightest idea what had specifically occurred or the state of affairs that followed. Only that the illness had reached Bun Province and the Bun Province lord had been among the first to switch allegiances.
The unscrupulous province lord who governed during the dynasty of Emperor Kyou was one of the first to get shuffled out of his position. Gyousou appointed to the position a high official who had served as the Minister of Summer during the Kyou Dynasty. Gyousou and his retainers considered him an affable and well-acquainted man.
Risai had been attached to the Jou Provincial Guard before the dynastic change and so barely knew the man. But he enjoyed a good reputation among Gyousou’s senior staff, and by all accounts excelled at getting along with people, so much so he was said to be better suited to head the Ministry of Earth.
And then despite all that, in the midst of the troubles in Bun Province, the new province lord abruptly switched allegiances. People suspected he had fallen ill before the troubles broke out, because the Provincial Guard was already behaving strangely around the same time the chaos became widespread.
The province lord of Bun had succumbed. Except that starting with the prime minister, he was hardly the only high governmental official. It was hard to believe that all of them had been afflicted too. The province lord simply wasn’t capable of repressing the entire civil service through force alone. Any attempt to do so should have been met an equal degree of resistance, leading to outbreaks of palace coups and purges
But instead, the illness sapped the vitality out of any such resistance. No reports emerged of large-scale purges. Neither were there the expected signs of chaos arising from revolution or despotism. Only a pervasive and subdued sense of lifelessness.
What was happening within the reach of this miasma? When Risai posed the question, Tonkou stroked his rugged chin and said, “Nothing much in particular.”
“It’s not possible for nothing to be going on.”
“Nothing is. Looking in from the outside, there’s no sense of lives being lived. All you feel is the pervasive quiet. The province lord is silent. He shut himself away in the depths of the provincial palace, only now and then emerging to hand down this or that edict. I have no idea where he’s holed up, what he is doing there, or what happened to him. As long as he remains in his burrow, life comes to a standstill.”
There were those who, unable to remain indifferent, remonstrated with him. Possibly others had contemplated revolt. In particular, the few times he showed his face, the orders he handed down perfectly reflected Asen’s will. So those who had been opposed to Asen from the start continued to resist, along with those who held out against arbitrary imperial rule and fought for provincial independence.
“It’s just as you’ve seen from the start, Risai. People full of their convictions until the day before, who opposed the province lord and even embraced revolt as a possible solution, changed their tune a day later. They fell into lockstep behind him. And like the province lord, they fell silent too. The high officials followed the province lord’s orders, while the lower ranked civil servants did nothing. Perhaps they holed up in their houses. Or they wandered about the palace like ghosts.”
Those who defied the province lord fell ill. Otherwise, they were purged. The purges followed the same pattern. Soldiers swooped down on a house or government office and killed everybody inside regardless of any actual complicity, including people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Incidents like that were commonplace when the illness first struck. The loudest voices criticizing the province lord literally died out. The rest resigned while keeping their counsel to themselves. The firebrands petered out. All that remains are the mindless ghosts and what’s left of the rebels who were wise enough to keep their complaints to themselves and faded back into the woodwork. And, of course, the scoundrels who always figure out ways to turn a profit in the worst of circumstances.”
“Such as Kan’you Mountain?” Risai asked. “The land gangs have taken over that whole region. Why the province tolerates this state of affairs is a mystery.”
“Hoh,” Tonkou said, and contemplated the question for a minute. “I don’t think we’re talking about petty and corrupt civil servants looking the other way. If the region is reasonably populated, they’d want to collect the taxes. Otherwise, I can think of only one good reason.”
“What one good reason?”
“Around the time His Highness went missing, orders came down from the provincial government to stay away from Kan’you Mountain and its environs. Don’t go looking for trouble. Don’t get involved. It’s none of your concern. As far as I know, those orders still stand. The province lord never repealed them.”
“The policies from that time are being enforced?”
“Most likely,” Tonkou said, “and hardly unexpected. The edict originated with Asen. So like a good puppet, the province lord carried it out. The edict was never withdrawn and so was left as is. Having been told not to get involved, not even the criminal element disobeyed.”
For the time being, no one criticized the province lord. No one got taken to task for making a show of doing as they were told. There were civil servants of conscience who could not bring themselves to follow the more egregious orders, but all they had to do was say nothing and then do nothing.
Tonkou said with a wry smile, “A simple Yes, sir! will usually suffice. Make a big show of carrying out orders you don’t care for. When asked for a progress report, grumble a lot and play dumb. You do what you’re told only after you’re run out of other options. That’s the way things actually work around here.”
“And you can get by like that?”
“You can get by with the people who are already ill. The problem is staying out of the way of the opportunists taking advantage of conditions to line their own pockets. They’ll drag you down like a boat anchor. Well, the Ministry of Winter manages to steer clear of those influences. At both the imperial and provincial levels, it’s like we’ve got people watching our backs.”
“You have people watching your backs?”
Tonkou nodded. “At least that’s how it looks to me. Not that anyone is making big or dramatic gestures, but there seems to be an understanding within the provincial palace to steer clear of the Ministry of Winter. It’s probably the same in the imperial government too. A good bet is that the Imperial Ministry of Winter enjoys the good favor of Asen.”
“Meaning her. Rousan-dono may have retired from her duties as the Minister of Winter, but she remains in control of everything that goes on there. The imperial ministry makes no unreasonable demands of the provincial ministry and so neither does the province lord. As long as nobody gets defiant, it’s a hands-off policy. Demonstrate no naked malice and you’re all clear. Everything from funding to mock-ups of new winter weapons, even swordsmiths to work as instructors—pretty much whatever we want, we get.”
“Has Rousan fallen ill as well?”
“Not hardly. She isn’t lying low or holding her tongue.”
“I find it hard to believe, but is Rousan double-crossing Asen?”
Tonkou mulled over the question. “That’s one way of interpreting what’s going on. The most striking characteristic of those who have fallen ill is their lack of vitality. That is certainly not true of Rousan-dono. More than anything, Rousan-dono loathes the loss of knowledge and technology, exactly what would be scattered and lost in the event of a purge. So she made it quite clear that a purge of the ministry was off the table. In accordance with her wishes, the Ministry of Winter has enjoyed a safe harbor. Long story short, there is nothing wrong with Rousan-dono’s health.”
In other words, as long as the civil servants in the Ministry of Winter kept their mouths shut, they were pretty much untouchable. Even the corrupt political factions left them alone.
“And thanks to all that,” Hoyou said with a cynical smile, “we can hire as many of the Ministry’s tradesmen and artisans as we can afford. We only need to get word to Tonkou about the skills we’re in need of and he will dispatch them under the guise of consulting engineers. As a result, quite a number of swordsmiths have built up quite a stock of winter weapons.”
Moreover, she added, “With a province lord who can barely be bothered to get out of bed in the morning, there is nobody in charge of the provincial palace. I believe the case can be made that a reasonably well-equipped and trained division could overrun the Bun provincial palace.”
Risai couldn’t help catching her breath.
“As things stand now, nobody inside the palace dares to take the first step. But if the walls were breached from the outside, our allies who’ve been biding their time would likely rally to our side. The soldiers and civil servants with the illness will be too enervated to mount a defense, so it would take them time to muster the troops. Moving quickly, we could take the palace in a single attack.”
Risai clenched her fists. If they could carry off such an offensive, that much needed palace stronghold would fall into their hands. “Enough of an army to storm the Bun provincial palace,” she muttered to herself.
Seishi nodded. “To only breach the palace walls, a single division should be enough. How many of the Provincial Guard are stationed here?”
Tonkou thought it over. “A single division, to be sure. And once mobilized, those numbers are likely to increase, not decrease.”
“It would be well in the realm of possibility for the combined forces of two divisions to take the palace.”
Risai agreed. At the bare minimum, another division to cover the logistics from the Bun provincial palace to Kouki. If they could only get their hand on those forces—
Seishi was thinking along the same lines. “We’d need three divisions to start with, and I’d prefer four. One to defend the provincial palace, one to handle logistics, and two to lead the assault on Kouki.”
Tonkou grinned. “And His Highness in camp raising the Imperial Standard.”
“Ah,” Seishi said in a small voice. He glanced at Tonkou and then at Risai.
Risai nodded in turn. “There is no starting anything without him. But with His Highness at our side, his supporters would come out of the woodwork. Raising three divisions wouldn’t be the problem. Feeding all those mouths would become a problem worth worry about.”
Hoyou raised her voice and said with a smile, “Nothing to worry about at all. We’ve warehoused provisions as well. Though some of the grain may be a bit on the musty side.”
Risai returned the smile. Having soldiers and matériel on hand would suffice for the time being. If they could only find Gyousou, he could request aid from other kingdoms. She had the feeling of finally catching a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel. But life wasn’t that simple. Recruiting enough soldiers to form a single division alone constituted an enormous undertaking. That’s why they could honestly only say the possibility existed, more resembling an unrealized dream.
Nevertheless, there was a world of difference between a course of action being possible and it being impossible. Though as thin and precarious as a spider’s thread, for the first time, a road that returned Gyousou to the throne existed, a road that Risai and her allies could begin to travel.
Heaven had not cast Tai aside.
There was still the problem of Gyousou.
“We haven’t heard any useful rumors circulating among the drifters and refugees,” Hoyou said.
Tonkou shook his head. “Over a span of three years, Asen waged a merciless search and destroy campaign against the remaining allies of His Highness, using men he personally selected and dispatched from Kouki. The Provincial Guard as well took up the manhunt in a frenzy. Nevertheless, we’ve heard not even a rumor of anyone fitting His Highness’s appearance, while even deserters who fled to small villages were hunted down. And yet His Highness was somehow overlooked during this whole period.”
Asen’s approach to the problem was to put an entire town to the torch at the mere sighting of a rebel element. So for the average person, avoiding the brand of rebel took priority. As a result, news of deserting soldiers was often reported to the Provincial Guard. In practically every case, if anyone was providing shelter to such a person, it was at an individual’s initiative, not the town collectively.
Since the town would likely end up getting destroyed anyway, the rumors widely circulated that those who voluntarily stepped forward were only hoping in vain to save their own skin.
Hoyou said, “In fact, the belief firmly took root that communities located farther away from Rin’u more often came under attack, while those closer to Rin’u were spared. Given those conditions, hiding His Highness in the outskirts strikes me as improbable. Better to focus on the immediate vicinity of Rin’u.”
Tonkou added, “At the time, the inclination to curry favor with Asen and the province lord remained strong. Especially in the aftermath of the troubles with the land gangs, any rumors about a stranger with the bearing of a soldier passing through, or a group of travelers caring for a wounded man, would be thoroughly investigated. If His Highness came anywhere close to Hakurou, I’m sure the Provincial Guard would hear about it in short order.”
“Just to be certain, we asked everybody visiting Gamon Temple if they’d run across someone resembling the emperor, and promised to reward useful tips. We gathered a good deal of information, and in the process identified many more deserters and rebels. I ended up recruiting most of them.”
Hoyou had acquired six estates across Bun Province, along with two more residences in Ba Province and three in Jou. All had taken in soldiers and rebels, mostly a result of following up on the information they received.
“Soldiers, you say?”
“Approximately three thousand. The majority are not housed here. Leaving large remnants of the Imperial Army in Bun Province is far too risky. Jou Province is out of the question too. They are staying on the farms and estates in Ba Province under the guise of staff and servants.”
Some, though not many, worked in stores run by the Fu Clan. Thanks to Hoyou’s connections, a significant number of soldiers were also hiding out as monks in temples and monasteries throughout Ba Province.
“Gyousou-sama’s retainers among them?”
“No. Officers in the Imperial Army above the battalion or regimental level tried their best to disappear. Otherwise, they’d get hunted down and executed along with the rest of the rebels.”
So the troop strength was there, but someone with the background and the abilities to fashion them into any army had yet to appear.
“No matter how accomplished, you’re not going to rally the troops around squad leaders and company commanders.”
Risai nodded. Pretty much a given. In any army, rank spoke volumes. In other words, it was hard moving soldiers around well without first taking rank into consideration.
“Which is why meeting Risai has proved such a fortunate stroke of luck. When the time comes, we at last have the means to muster the troops we have assembled.” Hoyou let out a long sigh. “However, His Highness is still missing. I find it hard to believe at this juncture that he fled west from Kan’you Mountain. He could not have slipped through the pickets set up by the Provincial Guard and evaded our own search efforts as well.”
Tonkou agree with a grim look of his own.
With mixed emotions, reasons to both rejoice and despair, Risai, Seishi, and Kyoshi left Gamon Temple the next day. As promised, Hoyou gave kijuu to Seishi and Kyoshi. She extended the offer to Houto as well, but he firmly refused. Instead, Kyoshi chose a kijuu capable of carrying two.
The kijuu assigned to Seishi when he was an officer in the Zui Provincial Guard had died in the subsequent chaos. Seishi was delighted to find another of the same species. “I never thought I’d ever get the opportunity to own another dokukoku.”
The kijuu resembled a white tiger, albeit a size smaller than a suugu. Its body sported the stripes of a tiger though its head was closer to that of a canine. From the back of its head and down its spring flowed a mane of unruly hair. An uncommon kijuu by most estimations, though known as well for its fearlessness and intelligence.
“No offense, Risai-sama, but given its nimbleness of body and mind, and its pleasant disposition, a dokukoku really is the best kijuu a rider could want.”
Risai had to laugh. It was only natural that every rider should believe his own kijuu was superior to all the rest.
“I’d wanted a kijuu ever since I joined the army. To tell the truth, one reason I accompanied Gashin-sama to the Yellow Sea was because I heard I’d be given the use of my own kijuu.”
At the time, Gashin lent him a dokutoku from his own stables. Once Seishi rose to the position where he could have a kijuu of his own, he’d searched high and low for another one like it.
“The hard part will be coming up with the right name for you,” Seishi said soothingly as he settled into the saddle
Observing him, Hoyou smiled. “If you’re happy, that’s all the thanks we need.”
Risai said with a deep bow, “We deeply appreciate your kindness and hospitality.”
Hoyou glanced over her shoulder. “Sekirei—”
Standing a short way off, a young woman with a martial bearing approached them.
Hoyou said, “This is Sekirei. She once served in the Palace Guard.”
Sekirei said with a courteous bow. “I was a company commander in the Palace Guard of the Center.” She straightened and added, “Risai-sama, it’s good to see you again. I have been praying for your welfare from the shadows.”
“Palace Guard of the Center—so you served under Eishou.” Risai gave the woman’s face a closer look but did not recognize her.
“Yes. At the lowest rank, though.”
After the army dispersed to the four winds, Sekirei had no place to go until Hoyou took her in.
“After this, when I need to get in touch with Risai, I’ll let Sekirei handle it. If we don’t establish some fixed lines of communication, there’s no telling what errors could crop up later. We are increasing the number of staff personnel little by little, but for now, I will leave that job in Sekirei’s hands. I’ll have her accompany you today so she can learn how to get to your safe house.”
Sekirei said with a deep bow, “I don’t know how helpful I can be, but I will do my best. I look forward to working with you.”
Risai smiled. “That’s good to hear. We’re happy to have you on the team.”