isai got right to the point in her report. “He did not proceed west from Hakurou.”
Houto mulled over this new information. Kyoshi craned his head in obvious confusion. There was no going north from Kan’you Mountain. There weren’t any open routes south toward Rin’u. East through the outskirts of Rin’u was equally impossible. In short, once they ruled out traveling from Kan’you Mountain to Rin’u, any course with an eastward bearing was out of the question.
The only remaining option was to head west, except there were no safe places between Kan’you Mountain and Hakurou where Gyousou might have found shelter. In that case, he could have continued past Hakurou and proceeded even further west, but Hoyou said no to that possibility as well.
“Without passing through the vicinity of Hakurou, he couldn’t have reached any points beyond, whether that’s north to Mount You or across country to Ba Province or Kou Province.”
“Hmm,” Kenchuu said, folding his arms across his chest. “Now might be a good time to rethink our assumptions.”
“Your working premise so far has been that he suffered a severe wound on Kan’you Mountain. Believing he was dead, his enemies abandoned him there. But he still had life left in him.”
Exactly, Kyoshi said to himself. A thought struck him. “Of course. There’s always the possibility he wasn’t badly injured.”
He glanced at Risai. The same idea must have occurred to her as well. She said, “Like the landslides and cave-ins.”
The premise they’d been working on all along was that, mortally wounded, Asen’s assassins had written Gyousou off as dead and abandoned the body without finishing the job. He had since recovered enough to escape. However, had a cave-in or landslide scattered Asen’s soldiers, Gyousou might have been left behind in relatively good health. In that case, he could have covered a fair distance under his own power.
Though the recovered sash certainly suggested a severe wound had been inflicted, he could have received medical attention somewhere or taken on a nurse or assistant. Either possibility would have greatly extended his range of movement.
“Let’s reexamine what we know,” Houto said, unfurling a sheet of paper. “First of all, we have Kan’you Mountain.” He made a mark in the middle of sheet with a brush. “South of Kan’you Mountain is Rin’u. The highway ties them together.”
Houto drew a point below Kan’you Mountain, labeled it “Rin’u,” and connected the two dots with a line. “This highway heads toward Kan’you Mountain, continues on past the mountain to Tetsui and then ends at Hakurou. To be precise, it merges with the northern spur from Rin’u to Hakurou at Josetsu.”
The road from Kan’you Mountain to Hakurou and Josetsu was not a major highway built to imperial standards, but it was big enough for most purposes. However, the road from the gateway at Kan’you Mountain to Tetsui was narrow. The precarious mountain road that followed the river valley came close to impassable in places.
“Even today, horse wagons transport ore and tailings off Kan’you Mountain. With teamsters hauling provisions and supplies in and around the outskirts of the mountain, the road itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon. But despite it being called a highway, we would do well to keep in mind that it is still an often-perilous stretch of road.”
As he spoke, Houto drew a dot to the left of Kan’you Mountain. He marked it “Tetsui” and connected Tetsui and Kan’you Mountain with a dotted line.
“Many villages once thrived along this road. Nowadays, they’ve fallen under the control of the land gangs or are devoid of inhabitants due to the purges. The mountain road once led to Tetsui. There is little left of Tetsui. The farms and field have gone fallow and the surrounding regions have returned to the wilderness.”
Houto indicated a point on the road connecting Kan’you Mountain and Rin’u. “This is Sokou, the southern reach of the land gang’s sphere of influence. The road heading east from Sokou follows the far side of the mountain range north of Rin’u. It joins the Totei Highway at Nanto and continues into Jou Province.”
Houto drew a line for the road as he spoke.
“After a similar fashion, there is a single fork along the mountain road that joins Kan’you Mountain and Tetsui. This is the road the brothers living in Kakyou were on when they saw His Highness. It descends on a southern incline from Ryuukei to Kakyou.”
Risai stared down at the map Houto had drawn. Four roads reached out from Kan’you Mountain, south to Rin’u and Kakyou, west to Tetsui, and east toward Jou Province.
“There are no roads north of Kan’you Mountain,” Risai said under her breath.
Kenchuu replied, “There’s a logging road that connects the abandoned mines in the mountains west of Kan’you Mountain. It’s a narrow road used extensively by the delivery wagons.”
“I’ve been there. Any others?”
“It doesn’t deserve to be called a road but there is a path that circles Kan’you Mountain. It’s steep and narrow and you have to push through the underbrush single file. The Taoists of Sekirin Temple and those of us wearing the white ribbons still make use of it. The trail starts the uphill climb around Anpuku, circles Kan’you Mountain, and then joins the logging road to the mines. Originally, the path made the circuit from Anpuku via the gateway to Kan’you Mountain, but our presence was getting the land gangs up in arms, so we turn back before getting to Kan’you Mountain.”
When Kenchuu finished his explanation, Kiitsu nodded and added, “Even on foot, the going is hard. There are only shrines along the training circuit. No villages or houses. Several of the shrines have resident priests serving as caretakers, but since the troubles with the land gangs, I haven’t heard any rumors from them about running across a wounded soldier or a traveler seeking shelter who wasn’t a pilgrim.”
“The lack of any rumors alone hardly constitutes proof,” Risai grumbled to herself.
Kenchuu cocked his head to one side. “Are there other routes taken by the pilgrims?”
Kiitsu said, “There are. These are paths more treacherous than the regular pilgrimage routes. Midway along the circuit are training trails to the eastern peak of Mount You and the shrine on Takuou Mountain. There are no stations along the way and they do not take the traveler to any notable places beyond. Up to Takuou Mountain, we’re mostly talking about a series of animal trails used by the Taoists as part of their training regimes. Not the kind of route anyone would attempt without the requisite experience. To start with, there’s a dizzying ravine traversed by a pair of chains.”
“A pair of chains?”
Kiitsu nodded. “Or so I’ve heard. I couldn’t tell you exactly how you cross the ravine. From what I’ve been told, it seems to involve climbing a cliff wall while clinging to iron rings and then going hand-over-hand on chains strung across the ravine. The trails aren’t used very often and so are overgrown in places. Without an experienced Taoist guide on hand, you’d have a hard time staying on course, to say nothing of also bringing along someone who was already injured. I don’t see how it’d be possible.”
“So we can cross that one off our list,” Risai said with a grim smile.
“Still, there is a path there,” Kyoshi said.
“There is. But—”
“Even if Gyousou-sama’s wounds were severe, they may not have been as bad as we imagined at first. He could have escaped Kan’you Mountain under his own power. Afterwards, if he’d been able to find refuge in an abandoned mine like Rokou, he could have recuperated there safe from his pursuers for the time being. And supposing he and some refugees chanced upon each other, received some modicum of assistance.”
“What are the actual odds?”
“Given but a slight amount of rest, Gyousou-sama had a treasured talisman of his own. He may have built up reserves of physical strength that allowed him to handle the training trails. Any refugees that knew about the trails could have shared that information with him.”
Risai took in Kyoshi’s argument with the same wry smile as before. “Nothing but suppositions.”
“Yes, I know—” Kyoshi hung his head. To be sure, all he was offering was conjecture based on wishful thinking. Except there wasn’t any other good explanation for Gyousou’s whereabouts.
“And yet I think these are suppositions worth checking out,” Risai said. “Let’s see these trails for ourselves.”
“All right,” Kyoshi said with a bob of his head.
Kiitsu said, “I can’t recommend such a course of action. If you insist on going, then wouldn’t it be better to follow the main highway around Mount You to Takuou Mountain? The snowpack is heavy on Mount You. Walking across country in these conditions is excessively dangerous.”
“We are aware of the risks.”
“Even so—” Kiitsu was about to continue when Kyoshi held up his hand.
Kiitsu reluctantly closed his mouth. Looking at him, Kyoshi said, “I think it best that we get permission from Moku’u-sama. These training trails are maintained by Sekirin Temple. We don’t want to go breaking any taboos.”
“Good point,” Risai said.
Kenchuu took it upon himself to make the arrangements with Sekirin Temple.
The next day, they got their baggage and belongings together, preparing to move their base of operations to Seisai. Risai went to Fukyuu Temple to retrieve Hien. When she got back, Sodou had showed up.
“Sodou-dono has graciously volunteered to accompany us.”
“But—” Risai started to say, exchanging a look with Seishi.
Sodou said in a soft but matter-of-fact tone of voice, “Without an experienced guide with you, I’m afraid completing the journey would be well-nigh impossible.”
“We are pressed for time and so are planning on using kijuu.”
“That would be preferable. I borrowed a kijuu from Moku’u-sama. If you are short on mounts, Sekirin Temple can provide them.”
“Thanks, but we’re good on that score.” Seishi and Kyoshi had the kijuu from Gamon Temple.
“So Sekirin Temple has kijuu too?”
“In case something happens on the training trails or along the pilgrimage circuit.”
Especially when a group was setting out on the training trails, Sekirin Temple lent them a blue bird. If an emergency arose, they would release the bird. In the off chance that an accident occurred suddenly and left an apprentice monk disabled, the blue bird could return of its own accord and lead the rescue party back to the scene. This was a particularly valuable species of blue bird, testimony to the true affluence of Sekirin Temple.
Sodou changed out of his brown habit to white robes that were easier to move around in. On a kijuu, it was a three-day ride to Takuou Mountain. As they would be camping under the stars for two nights along the way, the necessary preparations had to be undertaken.
“Our winter training regimes accustomed us to the cold. Anyone who hasn’t will want to make sure they are properly dressed.”
Risai and Seishi had gone through cold weather exercises in the army. So had Kyoshi at Zui’un Temple. Kyoshi also had a considerable amount of hands-on experience hiking through the mountains in the middle of the winter. But it occurred to none of them to make light of Sodou’s advice.
They completed their preparations according to Sodou’s instructions and left Rin’u the next day. In the meantime, Houto’s crew put the finishing touches on the move to the safehouse in Seisai.
Risai’s team reached Anpuku in a day. They spent the night there and picked up the training circuit east of Anpuku in the morning. Most of the narrow trail wound through the forest. In the clearings it was buried beneath the snow. At first, they worried that if they took to the air, they would lose track of the path. Fortunately, there was a shrine or temple located at all the critical waypoints.
With those landmarks in mind, they could fly as far as the crossroads along the way. There they found a simple shrine. The caretaker provided them with dinner, and explained that under normal circumstances from there to Takuou Mountain took over half a month.
Risai and the others asked around shrine about a wounded military man who might have passed through at some point. The question itself didn’t hold much meaning for them. Around the time of the troubles in Bun Province, nobody had been able to enter this part of the training circuit.
The province lord of Bun instructed them to withdraw all of their personnel. The land gangs subsequently drove out anybody who stayed behind. Asen appeared obsessed with removing anyone from the vicinity of Kan’you Mountain.
“Refugees and displaced people stuck it out, as living and working there was the only way they could eke out a living.”
“That’s what it came down to in the end,” Sodou said with a nod.
Next to the small shrine, a steep stone staircase climbed toward the rocky mountain behind the building. The staircase rose at an angle that was best climbed at a crawl. In some places, the riser of each step was chest high, requiring the skills of a mountain climber. Moreover, at this time of year, the stairs were covered with frozen snow and ice.
The stairs could be readily surmounted with kijuu. On horseback, they’d be impassable.
Even without the snow, a rider would have to dismount and lead the horse by the reins, and the way would still be difficult and fraught with danger. The trail had already proven to be entirely out of the ordinary. Reaching the top of this summit, it’d be more of the same on the way back down, with the apprentice monks descending hand and foot.
Once over the mountain, the trail continued on through a forest. They didn’t have to go far before encountering another rugged mountain covered with deep snow. Here and there they chanced across flat rocky outcroppings barely large enough to sit on, but most of the time they had to rely on chains to climb the walls of rock.
“Risai-sama, is there any way an injured person could make it through here?”
Risai could only groan in response to Kyoshi’s question. It’d come up on previous occasions, but clearly anybody with bodily injuries would find it next to impossible. Supposing that snow wasn’t an issue when they were told about the trail, it didn’t seem something the refugees could easily manage. Horses were out of the question. If horses were deemed necessary, large numbers of people would have to winch them up and down the cliffs.
Climbing to the summit of the next mountain, they emerged at the crest of a cliff than ran along a steep valley. The trail ran through a gap that appeared to have been carved in the cliff face, just wide enough pass through single file. While clinging to the rock face with one hand, the shoulder opposite jutted out into empty space.
To make matters worse, the ankle-deep snow was frozen hard, making it hard to tell where the trail ended and the snow overhanging the edge of the cliff began. Fortunately, however, in the narrow places, wooden planks made from split logs covered the bare stone, secured by spikes driven into the rock face.
“Horses could never manage without the planks here.”
Sodou craned his head to the side in confusion. “The last place I expected to find a plank road.”
“Not at all. From the start, the entire length of this part of the trail was carved out of the cliff.”
Risai flew Hien down to the trail. She brushed away the snow and took a closer look at the construction. The wooden spikes securing the planks were smaller logs that had been roughed down and hammered into holes drilled into the stone. The planks themselves hadn’t been sawn but split horizontally in half with wedges. The work here was not new. Based on the weathering of the materials, several years had passed since this plank road had been laid down.
“Someone went to a lot of effort to make this trail navigable under tough conditions.”
“So it appears. Probably horses—”
Sodou shook his head. “I have a hard time imagining horses could make it this far. You don’t suppose they planned on using kijuu that couldn’t always be counted on to fly?”
Not all kijuu could fly. Many capable of bounding great distances through the air were still not able to remain aloft at will.
“When was the last time this trail was used?”
“Before the troubles with the land gangs. Apprentice monks walking this section of the circuit are rare at best.”
No one would go to the trouble of building a plank road to reinforce a rarely used trail. Wood and rope deteriorated and decayed. The cables and chains up to this point had been fashioned from cast iron. When an apprentice monk was approved to walk the circuit, more experienced hands at Sekirin Temple inspected the route on kijuu and repaired any parts of the train that had badly deteriorated.
“Someone must have passed through here after that.”
“For certain, probably accompanied by kijuu.”
“Soldiers, I believe,” Seishi reasoned. “This looks like military engineering to me.”
“Sure does,” Risai agreed. These were methods used when an army had to repair a road in short order, making maximum use of the tools on hand and the materials available on site.
Checking for any other evidence left behind, they passed over the trail where it followed the cliff face, and then crossed another ridge further on. Arriving at the summit, they found a huge boulder entwined with the thick roots of a grove of ancient pine trees. A smaller table of stone ringed the boulder. The dusk was falling, making this was as good a place as any to set up camp.
“It wouldn’t matter how many kijuu you had this point. They’ve got good night vision, so they’d avoid getting into trouble. But we wouldn’t be able to make out the landmarks.”
Kyoshi seconded Sodou’s observation.
The light faded from the gray and overcast skies. The peaks soaring above the far banks of the mountain ravine soon disappeared into the gloom. The bitter cold set in as soon as the sun set. A bone-chilling wind swept up from the deep ravine with a swirl of snowflakes.
They lit a fire and surrounded the fire with a tarpaulin screen as a windbreak. Then snuggled up to their kijuu and shared their warmth. The winter coats of the kijuu could not completely stave off the brutal cold that seeped deep into the marrow, but enough to allow them to sleep.
In the morning, they tidied up the campsite. They were getting ready to set off once again, hovering in the air above the grove of pine trees, when they made a discovery.
Two stones covered with snow were nestled among the roots of the trees. Each stone was no larger than what could be carried in a man’s arms, and had clearly been moved there from someplace else. The stones sat on mounds made up of smaller stones and packed earth.
Seishi pointed out the mounds. Risai brushed away the snow for a better look. The drifting snow obscured their overall shape, but upon closer inspection they were graves. With so little soil to work with, this was the only way to bury a body, with the stones and raked together earth. The corpses had decayed over the intervening years as had the graves.
Risai was convinced now that someone had definitely crossed this trail. Not a single person but a group traveling together on foot. And several soldiers among them. The trail could not have been repaired and resurfaced by one or two people. These two had been left behind. Killed in an accident or driven to exhaustion by the rigors of the journey, they collapsed along the way.
Perhaps a group of wounded soldiers gathered together to help each other out as they made their way to safety.
“Makes sense,” Seishi muttered aloud. “Refugees weren’t the only ones hiding out in those abandoned mines.” Answering Risai’s quizzical glance, he explained, “If His Highness managed to escape to an abandoned mine after he was attacked, the only people there at the time would be refugees and other displaced persons. However, while he was on the mend, the Imperial Army dispersed and the purges began. I can well imagine fleeing soldiers finding their way to the mines as well.”
“But there was no evidence in the mines of soldiers having being there,” Kyoshi pointed out.
“The soldiers would make sure not to leave any traces behind. Especially if they were on the run, they would erase their tracks before moving on in order to make certain their pursuers couldn’t pick up the trail.”
Risai felt a slight tremor in her hand, a sense of anticipation arising from hope reborn. Gyousou might have been one of those soldiers.
There should be other clues waiting for them along the way. Keeping their eyes peeled, they continued forward. They eventually came to the rumored spot where the only way to cross the deep ravine was by using two iron chains. One positioned vertically above the other, the chains stretched across the chasm.
The rest of them looked on with puzzled expressions until Sodou gave them a demonstration. Keeping the upper chain tucked against his waist, he slid his feet sideway along the lower chain. Fortunately, the ravine there was fairly narrow so a kijuu could easily jump or fly to the other side. On the other hand, there was no possible way for a horse to cross the gap.
Here was more evidence that the group taking this trail had kijuu with them, quite likely kijuu that couldn’t fly. Or injured kijuu.
On the far side of the ravine was another mound. This grave marker was smaller than the ones before, fashioned only out of stones. There were no signs of a body being buried there. An unfortunate soul must have slipped off the chains and plunged into the depths of the ravine below. The least his companions could do was leave a memorial behind. This as well suggested that some in the group had kijuu and others did not.
The near vertical cliff wall of the ravine was dotted with iron rings. The only way to climb the wall was to grab ahold of the rings and find a foothold. Reaching the crest of the cliff wall, the side opposite was the same. Thanks to their kijuu, Risai and her team simply detoured around it. Otherwise, they would have had to climb up and down a cliff the height of a multistoried building ring by ring and foothold by foothold.
Having finally found a patch of flat ground to take a breather, Risai asked Sodou, “Is it all like this?”
“More or less.”
“I’ve heard that the training pilgrimage of the Tensan school comprises more than just this trail.”
“The circuit starts at Sekirin Temple and crosses into Kou and Ba Province before returning to Bun Province. Some places are flat and level, and other places follow regular roads. But for the most part, it consists of rugged mountain trails, not limited to the risky stretches we’ve faced so far.”
“Meaning there’s more along the lines of what we’ve been through so far.”
“Very much so. There are particularly rough spots in the mountains along the borders with Kou and Ba Province.”
“Even worse than this?”
“Even worse than this. There are points along the route where they strap themselves to the iron rings and camp out while hanging against the solid rock, halfway up the cliff. It can take over five days to scale a solid slab of stone that way.”
And during that time, of course, nobody was getting a good night’s sleep.
Risai said to Sodou, “Why go to such extremes?” What drove them to undergo such rigorous training regimes?
“They must believe that doing so is the only way to scour away the evil thoughts and impulses clouding their minds. They would otherwise never perceive the reasons and mercies of Heaven.”
“And having passed this way, do they perceive the reasons and mercies of Heaven?”
Sodou fixed his gaze on the Mount You. He nodded. “Yes,” he said at length. “But the desire to achieve success alone will not take you to the end of the road. Attempt to get there through desire alone and your own cowardice will rise up and immobilize your legs as if they were mired in mud. Only by losing yourself in the task ahead and pressing onward without guile and self-deception can you surmount the obstacles before you. And when you do, you will know that you would never have succeeded without the divine protection of Heaven.”
Sodou turned to Risai. “It’d be easy to say that the journey of my life brought me here and that’s why I believe in Heaven. But I do not see my life in those terms. I am but a tool in the hands of Heaven.”
His own faith, his own training, everything that began with himself as the starting point—he turned that commonplace reasoning upside down.
“My understanding is that what I call my existence was not the beginning, the cause of what came next. My existence is the end result. I did not create what I call my life. My life created me.”
“Oh,” Risai said with a nod, though she wasn’t at all sure what he was getting at. Then again, if these mysteries could be comprehended without the necessary training, there would be no need for the training in the first place.
Risai got to her feet. “Let’s get going. We’re not even halfway there.”