17-4 In order to keep Gyousou alive, common sense said he had to eat now and then.
That thought on his mind, Asen stood on the balcony and looked north across the Sea of Clouds. It was a moonless night. Gyousou was out there, at the far reaches of the calm and black seascape.
What condition is he in? What is on his mind?
The White Pheasant had not fallen, so he must be alive. Even Asen didn’t know anything else beyond that. It had never occurred to Asen to kill Gyousou. Kill Gyousou and Providence would adapt as well, expressing the Will of Heaven in the selection of a new emperor. In order to prevent such an outcome from occurring and keep the status quo frozen in place, Gyousou had to be imprisoned alive.
Asen’s men attacked Gyousou, triggered a landslide, and sealed him deep underground. That was the plan from the start and it succeeded in every way. With Gyousou buried alive at the bottom of a mineshaft, Kan’you Mountain became the tombstone marking his living grave. The only thing they hadn’t counted on was the enormous scale of the landslides.
No, that wasn’t the only thing.
The report filled Asen with regrets. Gyousou fought back harder than expected and killed several of his attackers in the ensuing struggle. They responded in kind and badly wounded him. Then succumbing to their fury, threw him down the nearest mineshaft. A succession of landslides and cave-ins finished the job, entombing him completely.
Asen chose Ukou to lead the team. Ukou was a beast whose bad reputation preceded him. Asen felt nothing but disgust toward the man, and intended to use him and discard him once he’d served his purposes. Ukou believed in nothing but himself. He possessed no sense of duty or honor. Asen could hardly count on Ukou to deport himself as a loyal retainer.
Having wounded Gyousou and rendered him immobile, the original plan was to abandon him in a mine at the face of one of the gemstone fountains, and then collapse the tunnel behind him, entombing him there. That particular gemstone fountain had a ventilation shaft that reached the surface, through which water and food could be lowered into what remained of the mine.
While secretly keeping Gyousou alive, Asen intended to put his status and standing on a firm footing. Once he was secure in his own position, they would excavate the caved-in areas and clear away a passageway. At that point, Asen could take Gyousou into custody as a prisoner under his personal supervision. Except—
“Yeah, he might be dead.” That was Ukou’s conclusion when he returned. “He made it hard to go easy on him, you know?” Ukou said with a thin smile. They ended up wounding him more severely than expected. Caught up in the frenzy, his soldiers tossed Gyousou into the nearest hole in the ground.
Human trash, Asen thought. He didn’t say so aloud.
These weren’t the kind of men who knew how to hold back. They lacked the ability to judge their own skills against those of other men. Ukou could never have held his own alone with someone like Gyousou. He didn’t even rise to the average level of Asen’s retainers. He was not blessed with a commanding physique and nothing laudable could be said about his training ethic.
Where he really sunk to new depths was in cruelty and foul play. And those depths knew no bounds. The ends justified any means. Having taken their characters into account when he recruited them, all of Ukou’s Red Armor members—no small number—resembled him in every way. Augmenting their abilities with hinman and relying on the powers of the youma, the Red Armor upgraded their skills without any additional work and had no little pride in the fact.
They probably wanted to beat Gyousou to death. Having been ordered not to kill him, they stayed their hands at the last minute. It wasn’t like they knew he was going to die, but it was certainly their intention. If it came down to just him and them, they figured they were capable of beating him senseless. Except Gyousou managed to take out a good half of them during the fight, leaving them dead or wounded.
This came as no surprise to Asen. He expected such an outcome. Ukou hadn’t. Giving into their anger and wounded pride, Ukou’s men threw Gyousou down a mineshaft. Orders not to kill him and to instead abandon him in a mine near the gemstone fountain flew out of their heads.
Had Asen’s retainers been in charge of the operation, they would have grasped the overall goal of the plan, and if unforeseen exigencies had arisen, wouldn’t have abandoned it in the midst of carrying it out. At the end of the day, Ukou and his kin were nothing but rogues with badges pinned to their chests. There weren’t even capable of evaluating the merits of their own actions.
“Well, what’s done is done!” they laughed, and went ahead and triggered the landslide right on schedule.
“Yeah, they’re idiots.” Asen shook his head and laughed in self-derision. “But that’s just the pot calling the kettle black.”
He should have given the job to his trusted aides in the first place. But Asen was not confident he’d be able to win them over. Regicide was a great crime. His retainers would want no part of it. They’d undoubtedly try to change his mind instead. Asen didn’t want to have his mind changed and he didn’t have it in him to try and change theirs.
He could twist arms and issue orders and count on his retainers to obey him. But as their leader, he could not bring reveal himself as the kind of man ready to descend to such unjust depths. And so in the end, he turned to Ukou to put the finishing touches on the plan. That decision was the first of many mistakes that followed.
The arbitrary actions of Ukou and his crew started them down the road to chaos, with the power of the youma pushing the end results in directions even Asen had once thought unimaginable.
The ririki was a youma the size of an elephant that resembled a giant boar. An extraordinarily ugly and dirty creature, its thick and flabby hide sprouted moss in places. It barked like a dog, except when under distress, when it raised a piercing scream. That shriek so weakened solid rock that massive stones shattered like eggshells beneath its boulder like feet.
Except that sound alone could not trigger a massive landslide. Rather, it was the howl of a ririki in its death throes that possessed the power to peel away an entire mountainside.
The ririki was locked inside in a cage and carried into a mine. A pit beneath the cage was filled with charcoal and lit. The cage was placed near an air shaft. Before the fire directly beneath the cage flared to life, there was enough time for the soldiers to run for safety.
Two ririki were transported into the cave. In most situations, ririki were mild mannered creatures that did not attack human beings, and were all the more docile when around others of their own kind. However, when one became agitated, that frenzied state got transmitted through the herd. Given their huge frames and enormous power, that made them extraordinarily dangerous youma.
The ririki had been smuggled from the Yellow Sea. They were able to keep the ririki alive inside the cages thanks to Rousan’s advice. There was a species of youma in the Yellow Sea called a shiniku. Whether a shiniku was a carnivore or herbivore was anyone’s guess, but it provided a way for ordinary humans to keep a youma.
To start with, Rousan explained, a youma was a youma because it couldn’t be domesticated by human beings. The lives of humans and youma were governed by their own natural laws. But a shiniku bridged that divide. Stick one inside the cage, and until it was completely devoured, the youma continued to thrive in keeping with the natural laws that governed the human world.
Following Rousan’s advice, all the necessary preparations should have been completed to perfection. Except—
Thinking back about it now, mastering all the actions of the youma and putting them at their beck and call had been impossible going in. Nevertheless, had they made the necessary preparations beforehand, they could have exercised some modicum of control.
They should have first brought a ririki to Kan’you Mountain to see what happened. Had they done so, they would have learned that the roar of a ririki was more powerful than they imagined and that Kan’you Mountain was more fragile than they expected. But without such a practical approach, “preparations” made without first conducting the necessary research didn’t mean anything.
So the ririki wreaked a massive amount of destruction on Kan’you Mountain and Gyousou disappeared, dead or alive, amidst the dirt, dust, and debris.
To Asen as well, Gyousou ended up in an unreachable state. Any control over his life or death was now out of Asen’s hands. A complete blunder on his part. Not that he couldn’t reassert that control. But that first meant digging through a literal mountain of earth and stone to retrieve him.
In the aftermath of the chaos, launching a recovery operation would only reveal to Gyousou’s retainers where he was, while pulling the curtain back on Asen’s role in the attack. It’d be no different than making a public confession.
Asen believed that his blunders had cost Gyousou his life. No living thing could survive buried so deeply in the earth. If Gyousou died, his own downfall was inevitable. They were all destined to die on each other’s swords, in which case they just should have battled each other to the death to start with.
“And yet he lives—”
The White Pheasant had not fallen. Gyousou somehow remained alive in his grave.
Despite being listed on the Registry of the Gods, no emperor could survive this long without food and water. Moreover, Gyousou had suffered severe wounds before being entombed in the mountain. Getting thrown down a deep mineshaft certainly inflicted more bodily damage. And then on top of everything else, he got caught in the ensuing landslides.
To emerge alive from such conditions was nothing short of a miracle.
Asen could not begin to imagine the physical state Gyousou must be in. By now, his life was surely hanging by a thread. Should his wounds prove fatal, there was no way for Asen to step in and stop the inevitable from occurring.
If Gyousou died, Asen’s life was over too.
Once the wheels of Fate began to turn, the Providence of a stalemated Heaven would surely manifest itself again, forcing Asen to account for his sins. That could occur a year from now. It could happen today.
It could happen today. The thought had scorched his conscience for the past six years.
“So this is how you exact your revenge,” Asen mumbled to himself, turning his gaze toward the distant horizon.
Far off to the north, an island broke the surface of the Sea of Clouds. The island was the peak of Mount You. At the base of the massive mountain, a village sat on a plot of level land alongside a mountain stream on the southwest slope. Crossing the stream and looking up, the palisades of Seisai came into view, perched on the cliffs that ringed the hamlet.
The region was occupied by the land gangs. No one else could enter the area at will. All of the neighboring hamlets were deserted during this coldest part of the year. Closed in by the snow, within the dark and quiet village, a small light illuminated the exterior of a single small house.
Holding her father’s hand, the girl left the house. In her other hand, she held a basket with a tight grip. A flicker of light came from her father’s lantern. Thick clouds hung low in the starless winter sky. It was the night of a new moon and no other light peeked through overcast shrouded skies.
“Looks like snow—” the girl said in a quiet voice.
The father glanced back at her with gentle eyes. “The weather should hold out until we get back.”
The girl nodded with the sad realization that they were going no matter what. It was hard going, trudging through the accumulated snow in the dead of night, under a winter sky, without even the light of the moon. Not to mention that inside the basket was what little food the family had, three steamed rice cakes wrapped in bamboo grass scraped together from a scant amount of grain.
As if reading her thoughts, “Are you hungry?” her father asked in a sad voice.
The girl shook her head, but they had to go hungry that night in order to make the rice cakes.
“I should be getting my hands on some barley tomorrow, so please endure the best you can tonight.”
That being the case, they could have eaten this meal that night and cast the basket into the water tomorrow night. She kept these thoughts to herself. On the previous night of the new moon, her father hadn’t let the basket get swept away. He was placing nuts and berries inside the basket when he stopped. With trembling hands, he instead shared them with her and her brother.
And then he wept. He must have been thinking about her older sister, who had starved to death. That’s why he didn’t place the basket upon the water. And yet a month later, he once more prepared the basket. With mixed emotions, he hesitated again and again, but finally put the rice cakes inside the basket and closed the lid.
The girl was hurt and disappointed. At the same time, she was relieved. She sensed that her father felt a bit better after that. But she couldn’t help thinking that tomorrow would be just as good as today. They could eat well today and put the basket off until tomorrow.
Though she didn’t mention any of this either, her father guessed what was on her mind.
“It has to be the night of the new moon. Break that deadline and the rest is all for naught. So much so it frightens me.”
The girl tramped through the frozen snow, following the trail made by her father.
Her father nodded. “I understand what you’re going through. You don’t have enough to eat. Your sister died, and the tragic fact is, there was one less mouth to feed. But you are a growing girl and such meager amounts cannot possibly be enough. I feel terrible about what you are going through, and all the worse since your sister’s death. That’s why if I fail again now, it’s like I have been defeated by those emotions.”
“What’s wrong with that?” the girl asked.
Her father did not speak for a while. They walked on, their breath freezing into flowing white clouds in the cold night air. He must be angry, she thought uneasily to herself. But at length, her father answered.
“Perhaps there is nothing wrong with surrendering to the inevitable. Causing your sister’s death was a truly stupid thing to do. Maybe it would be better if I put a stop to this nonsense and made sure you were fed instead. Except your father does not wish to admit defeat.”
“Why?” she asked.
That was when the father and daughter arrived at the edge of the deep pool. The pool had frozen over and collected a thin dusting of snow. The black surface of the water only appeared along the flow of the rushing current.
Her father found a foothold on a rocky outcropping facing the current. He knelt down and took the basket from his daughter. He opened the lid and examined the contents. The basket was mostly empty, except for a tunic made from joss paper, several pieces of charcoal, and three rice cakes wrapped in bamboo grass.
“Your sister died and you never have enough to eat because a bad person sits on the throne. Acting contrary to the will of Heaven, this evil man reduced this kingdom to what it is today. Your father cannot allow this state of affairs to go on.”
“Us eating the rice cakes allows it to go on?”
“That is how it seems to me. Though if we divided them amongst ourselves, we could set aside thought of hunger, at least tonight.”
“Do the dead matter more?”
“What matters more may be somewhat different. But I understand. The dead no longer dwell in this world. They cannot come to our aid or save our lives. Even this—”
Her father gently rocked the basket back and forth. The few items within rattled back and forth.
“Even this will surely go to waste. We’d be better off sharing the food and warming ourselves with the charcoal. But that man was our benefactor. If he didn’t exist, your father may not have existed at all and you would have never been born into this world. You suffer and go hungry because your father holds you dear. And the only reason such adorable children are here is because of him.”
When the girl craned her head to the side with a puzzled expression, her father said, “A long time ago, your father’s father, and his father before him, faced an almost certain death. He rebelled against the kingdom and should have been slain as a traitor. But that man spared his life.”
“Was Grandpa’s father a bad man?” the girl asked in evident surprise.
“He wasn’t a bad man. But under any other circumstances, he would have been labeled one and killed. But that man said he wasn’t. The kingdom was in the wrong, he said. Rebelling didn’t make them traitors. That’s why he couldn’t allow them to die. In times like today, I can’t help thinking how right he was.”
The girl nodded.
“He saved them. It was thanks to him that your father is with you now. Our great benefactor was killed by truly evil men. Putting him out of our minds means also forgetting the grievous sin they committed and accepting this fallen world the way it is.”
Her father added under his breath, “No matter what becomes of this world, the people of Tetsui alone will never forget what he did for them.” A wry smile rose to his face and he looked back at her. “Sorry for dredging up such a difficult subject at a time like this.”
The girl shook her head. Though she didn’t have a very good idea of what her father was talking about, she sensed a glimmer of comprehension in his words. But then a thought struck her. She reached into her pocket and took out three otedama beanbags her sister had made filled with grass seeds. She’d attached small bells to the beanbags so that they produced a clear ringing sound when tossed around.
These were her only toys, but she placed them inside the basket.
“Are you sure?”
“He doesn’t have anything to play with, does he?” she asked with a quizzical expression.
Her father responded with a happy smile. “I’m sure he would be delighted, especially knowing that such an adorable girl was willing to part with such a prized possession.”
The girl nodded. With a serious look on his face, her father closed the lid of the basket. Then again checking his footing, lowered the basket into the water.
After they left, her father’s hand holding hers, the currents carried the basket across the deep, dark pool until it was drawn into the mouth of the crevasse. The girl did not know, but the crevasse constantly feasted on offerings swept away like this. On a regular basis, the rushing waters brought them down from the upper courses of the mountain stream to this pool, where they were swallowed by the earth.
Many sank to the depths of Kan’you Mountain, never to be seen again. But now and again, one continued on its journey.
The basket prepared by the father and daughter was one such offering. The father having set it afloat, the basket plunged deep underground, tumbled down the rocky rapids, barely skimmed past the stagnant ponds while miraculously navigating the many forks and tributaries, until it finally arrived in the subterranean depths of the mountain.
In the most distant reaches of Kan’you Mountain, a narrow shore had formed along the stream in a spacious cave. The basket floated toward that shore and snagged a rock in the shoals.
Despite being located so deep underground, the faint light from a small fire illuminated the surroundings. Illuminated by the glow, the basket rocked in the wash of the current.
For a long moment, briefly balanced against the small rocks, the basket bobbed back and forth until the swirl of the stream turned it about and the basket again resumed its journey into the pitch-black deeper underground.
Just then, a hand reached down and grabbed hold of the basket and pulled it from the water before the rapids could reclaim it.
Amidst the darkness of the bottomless pit, in the unfathomable depths beneath this huge mountain, gifts from above arrived along the shore. He had a hard time imagining what had brought them here, to a place so isolated from the surface of the earth and the known world above.
This was not an event that happened only once or twice. The baskets showed up on an unexpected but regular basis. They resembled offerings for the dead and likely constituted part of the ancestral rites following a person’s funeral.
He opened the lid of the basket. In the dim light, he could make out paper handicrafts that had lost their form from the dampness, several lumps of charcoal, three cloth beanbags, and three rice cakes wrapped in bamboo leaves. He picked one up for a closer look. It was a child’s toy, an otedama.
It followed that this must be a child’s funerary offering. Or else a plucky and self-sacrificing girl had included it as a condolence. Probably the latter. The otedama showed the wear and tear of long and loving play.
I’m taking toys from children, Gyousou thought with a wry smile.
He lifted the basket over his head and bowed in thanks for the bounties received. And then walked off, basket in hand.
These offerings for the dead had kept him alive up until now.
Passing as intended from the hands of the sender to the hands of the receiver, swept along to their destination on a tide of deep feelings and profound convictions, these meager blessings had become the emperor’s lifeline.
Though his benefactors were in no way aware of that fact.