20-8 The next day, Risai and Sougen entrusted Gyousou to their retainers. They set off for Rokou. Risai and Sougen stayed behind in Saihou to select the members of the security detail.
Kyoshi had the kijuu he’d borrowed from Gamon Temple. Houto didn’t have a kijuu. Riding a horse would only delay his arrival, so he’d have to double up with Kyoshi or someone else.
They’d head due west through Bun Province into the southern quarter of Ba Province, and then turn south into Kou Province. Their final objective was Bokuyou Mountain in Ten Shire. From there, they could travel straight to En over the Sea of Clouds.
Once Gyousou reached En, he’d petition for support from other kingdoms, support that would make it possible for him to topple Asen and reclaim Tai.
With a clearer idea in mind about the way forward, Kyoshi and his companions returned to Seisai. Risai put her traveling gear and a few personal matters in order and traveled to Saihou by herself.
She went to see Sougen at his headquarters and caught him just as he was leaving. Sougen greeted her with a wordless nod. He cut through a dilapidated structure and headed toward a storehouse not too far away. Yuushou, the commander of Asen’s army, was being detained there.
To get to the storehouse, they had to walk down a ramshackle corridor. The corridor connected to a broken-down room housing a number of soldiers. The occupants of the room were all Imperial Army staff officers. The regular troops were being held in another location.
Most of the doors and walls were missing. Risai felt their eyes on her and she walked past, all reflecting a variety of emotions. They were of course dispirited but other sentiments showed on their faces too. Risai glanced back at them as she strode down the corridor.
She’d reached the end of the roofline separating the buildings when a hoarse voice called out behind her, “How fares His Highness?”
Risai glanced over her shoulder. Besides the roof and supporting pillars, little else of the structure remained. There were enough people crammed into the room that she couldn’t tell who asked the question. But they all looked at her and Sougen expecting an answer.
Risai glanced at Sougen. Though they hadn’t made any public statements about Gyousou’s existence, Yuushou’s retainers must have realized that they’d been in pursuit of him all along.
Sougen stopped, turned on his heels, and faced the room. “He is resting for now.”
“Has he suffered any injuries?”
“As far as we can tell, no injuries that could be called serious.”
“What about his health? We heard he’d lost a lot of weight.”
“No worse than yourselves. He is worn out, but once he’s had time to rest, we expect a full recovery. Are you that concerned about him?”
A murmur flowed through the room, as if they were at a loss about how to answer. Among them, one raised his head and said, “His Highness bears the fate of Tai on his shoulders.”
“He sure does,” Sougen said with a nod.
The man started to add something more but changed his mind. With a shake of his head, he raised his head again, and with his hands bound behind him, straightened his posture.
“I pray that the fortunes of war be with His Highness.”
He bowed deeply. Among his puzzled companions, not a few repeated the gesture.
“We will let him know,” Sougen answered and urged Risai on.
They exited that room and entered the next.
“They don’t appear to agree with Asen’s actions at all.”
“They don’t, and yet that is understandable,” Risai answered. “A good many of Asen’s retainers understand reason and the Way. After all, they know what it meant serve in a distinguished and respected army.”
“They would have been the most surprised by Asen’s insurrection.”
“I suspect so.”
But the vast majority held loyalty in equally high regard. So they followed Asen. Wherever their commander told them to go, they went. That’s what it meant to be retainer.
Risai turned those thoughts over in her mind as she and Sougen arrived at the warehouse. While the guards busied about unlocking the doors, Risai glanced through a large crack in the wall. Hands shackled, Yuushou was sitting on a broken-down bed, head slumped to his chest.
Yuushou had once been a regimental commander in Asen’s army. After Asen usurped the throne, he was promoted to general in the Army of the Right in the Palace Guard. Risai took in the scene and hung back by the doors. Sougen nodded and entered the warehouse by himself.
He shut the doors and said, “I never imagined the two of us meeting like this.”
Yuushou raised his gaze. “You don’t say.” He flashed a self-derisive smile and again bowed his head.
A few pieces of furniture had been left in the cavernous room, but there still remained the gaping hole in the roof. A tarp stretched out like a tent helped to stave off the cold, along with a rug and blankets. But even if they unshackled his hands, they couldn’t very well bring in a hibachi.
“It’s been a long time since news of you reached my ears. You seem to be doing all right. If nothing else, you’ve got your health.”
There was a broken edge to his voice. The two of them had known each other for a long time. They’d both served as regimental commanders in the Imperial Army. Though they’d never been particularly close, Sougen was well acquainted with Yuushou’s temperament and valued his achievements. Gyousou promoted Sougen to general when he became emperor, elevating his rank above Yuushou, who remained a regimental commander. But Sougen made sure that did not change the nature of their previous relationship.
Maintaining a respectful distance, Sougen sat down in the one chair.
“We captured your soldiers. For the time being, we’re just keeping them tied up with rope. We will treat them as well as we can. Most are being kept out in the open. We’re working to secure shelter as quickly as we can.”
Sougen was sure that if he lost a battle and was taken prisoner, the disposition of the soldiers under him would be the first thing on his mind.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have the wherewithal to keep all of the prisoners housed and fed. So there’s a question I have to get an answer to. Why did you come to Bun Province?”
Sougen looked Yuushou in the eye. He should understand where the question came from. Like Sougen, Yuushou was a leader of men. If the aim of Asen’s army was the subjugation of Sougen and all the rebel factions associated with him, there was no way he could release the soldiers they’d captured. Free them and they’d surely rally their forces and come at them again. Because if they didn’t, they’d be in dereliction of duty. If told to attack, it was a soldier’s duty to attack with all the means available to him and not retreat until ordered to retreat.
Sougen had two choices before him. Imprison and cast them aside, with not even enough to eat. Or execute them. Even as a subterfuge, if Yuushou could offer a reason other than to conquer them, he could very well leave it at that.
Yuushou said with a thin smile, “I will tell you the truth. We were sent here to conduct a search of Kan’you Mountain. It never occurred to me that you might be here. I doubt that even Asen-sama had the slightest inkling. Though messengers are likely headed to Kouki as we speak.”
Yuushou then leaned his head to the side, as if struck by a thought. “In the end, I couldn’t say whether or not I realized it was you. Our intention was only to engage the land gangs. The land gangs were there, they had some military types with them, and perhaps they were Imperial Army veterans. That was about the sum of the intelligence we had on hand.”
Yuushou softly sighed. “We couldn’t advance on Kan’you Mountain with the land gangs in the way. Hostilities commenced. But with all those military personnel among them, the battle turned against us. We couldn’t prevail with a single regiment so we retreated.”
He paused before continuing. “Given those conditions, do you think you could find a way to release my men?”
“Do you think that’d be enough to pass muster with your men and your superiors?” Sougen asked.
Yuushou grimaced. “Highly unlikely. Even if I order them to hold their tongues, somebody somewhere is bound to say something about your presence here. And how the prisoner being held under Kan’you Mountain is a free man.”
“Yeah, probably,” Sougen said with a smile. “But I think calling it a retreat is the right way to go. We’ve known all along that news about us would inevitably reach Asen.”
They sallied forth to save the land gangs with that realization in mind. But it all turned out for the best. Rightly or wrongly, Risai and her contingent felt compelled to save the land gangs, and now Sougen was grateful. Thanks to them, they were able to meet Gyousou. If Risai had not insisted on riding to the rescue, Sougen would probably not have mobilized his own forces. In that case, it was entirely possible that Gyousou would have been captured in the midst of the melee, and in the worst-case scenario, this time killed for certain.
“Are the land gangs your colleagues?”
“That’s not quite the right word for it. A while back, they lent a hand to some of our colleagues.”
That prompted a chuckle. “So despite your fears of being exposed, you chose the high road.” Yuushou craned his head back and stared up at the ceiling. “I quit.”
In response to Sougen’s puzzled look, Yuushou added, “I said we retreated. The fact is, I simply quit the field.”
But Yuushou interrupted Sougen before he could point out that he’d have a hard time releasing his soldiers were that the case. Yuushou was digging his own grave with an admission like that.
“We lost to the land gangs. Returning to Kouki only to get raked over the coals by Chou’un and his ilk is well beyond the pale. My three battalion with disband here.”
Sougen looked back at him, eyes wide with surprise.
Asen-sama, this is as far as I will go, he told the man who lived on in his memories.
Yuushou had followed him for a long time now. There was a time when Asen was an object of pride for Yuushou. He was happy to be counted among his retainers and never shrank from letting anyone know it. But now he had to admit that was no longer the case.
Asen planned on recruiting the land gangs to excavate Kan’you Mountain, and then killing them to shut them up once the job was done. Sougen and Risai chose to reveal their existence in order to save those same land gangs.
He understood the cold logic of the former. The latter were fools for sticking their necks out for such a disreputable bunch. But Yuushou would rather be counted among the latter than the former. If he had to choose which camp he’d belong to, it would be the latter too. There was a time when he revered Asen as his commanding officer, and for a long time would have followed him anywhere.
Maybe Yuushou hadn’t seen the real Asen from the start. Or maybe Asen had abandoned his own principles along the way. In either case, after this, Asen no longer deserved Yuushou’s allegiance.
Yuushou corrected his posture. “Let me speak with my senior staff.”
Yuushou assembled the regimental commander and three battalion leaders. With Sougen looking on from a distance, Yuushou began by stating, “I am leaving the army.”
They no longer had a commanding officer. The officers and soldiers were free to do as they saw fit. They could go back to Kouki or they could return to their home towns.
“General, what do you plan on doing after this?” asked one of the battalion leaders.
“As a follower of Asen, I inflicted much unnecessary suffering on the people of this kingdom. That is a debt I owe and a bill that has to be settled.”
Yuushou had already shed the honorific language he had once consistently attached to Asen’s name, which made his intentions all the clearer.
“Wherever you go, I will accompany you as well,” said the man who had prayed aloud for the fortunes of war to be with Gyousou. He appeared to be the regimental commander and one of Yuushou’s retainers. “If you will permit me.”
Yuushou asked with a smile, “And if decide to go home and take up fishing?”
“I don’t see that happening.”
Yuushou laughed. “I guess not.” He looked at the three battalion leaders. “Gen’yuu has spoken his mind. However, having separated myself from the army and thrown away my rank, you have no duty or obligation to follow me. You and your subordinates should decide what you wish to do on your own.”
“We will go with you,” said the first.
“Of course,” chimed in the second.
“I don’t need an answer right away. Take the time to think it through.”
The first battalion leader shook his head. “I am a soldier. Wielding a sword and charging into the fray is pretty much all I’m good for.” His mouth quivered. “So if I am ordered to strike down the enemy, then that is what I will do. If people are secretly harboring rebels and I am told that they are the enemy, it is my duty to strike them down as well. But their innocent neighbors? That is not something I can abide.” He pressed his fist against his mouth. “I’ve hated this for so long now.”
Unable to hold in his emotions, he began to sob. His fellow battalion leaders put their arms around his shoulders. Hanging his head and gripping his knees, the shoulders of the regimental commander shook as well.
Yuushou and his staff spent the whole of the next day meeting with their officers and soldiers. As a result, Yuushou’s captured battalions were placed under Sougen’s command. And so they changed their battle flags from followers of Asen to an army committed to his defeat.
“Who knew you’d end up taking responsibility for such a large family,” Yuushou observed, visiting Sougen at his headquarters.
“A responsibility I’m happy to have.”
“And I am truly grateful for that.” Yuushou pulled up a chair and sat down with an exhausted sigh. “The officers and soldiers despised Asen’s way of doing things more than I expected. They’d all been waiting for me to put my foot down and say I’d had enough.”
“You don’t say,” Sougen responded.
“They’d all been harboring feelings of guilt and remorse that I never sensed. A truly pathetic oversight on my part.”
“It’s probably the same with Asen. I have to wonder if it ever occurred to him that his retainers wanted no part of what he was doing. If it did, it must have weighed heavily on his mind.”
“I honestly have no idea.”
“Yuushou.” Risai stepped into the room. Accompanying her, Oukou and Seishi hung back by the entrance. “There’s something I really need to ask you about. Is it true the Taiho returned to Hakkei Palace?”
“Is he doing well?”
“Of course. He has reclaimed his position as Province Lord.”
“What about him calling Asen the new emperor?”
“That’s what we heard too. Which raises a matter I’d like to hear from you about. The Taiho said that Asen was the new emperor. If so, this time you are the ones engaging in a rebellion and Gyousou-sama is the usurper. Is that a state of affairs you are willing to accept?”
Sougen was the one who answered. “Yuushou followed Asen the way we followed Gyousou-sama.”
“So wouldn’t that make Gyousou-sama a rebel as well?”
Risai considered the question and remained silent. Moku’u had said there was something odd about the public pronouncement, and his information came from inside the Imperial Palace. But Yuushou had been there in the Imperial Palace and didn’t appear to have any doubts.
“And what of Gyousou-sama?”
Sougen said, “Concerning Gyousou-sama, tomorrow—no, probably today—he is moving to a safer location. He is resting for now. As is to be expected, he is quite exhausted.”
“Makes sense. You did a good job of rescuing him.”
“Except we didn’t rescue him. He rescued himself.”
Yuushou gaped at them. “You didn’t recruit the land gangs to help clear away the rockslides and extricate him from the mountain?”
“Nope,” Sougen said. “That’s not at all how things turned out. The land gangs were occupying Kan’you Mountain so they could sift through the mine tailings for valuable stones. Once we finally figured out that His Highness had to be in Kan’you Mountain, we intended to ask the land gangs to help search for him. But His Highness extricated himself before we even got started.”
“That is amazing,” Yuushou said. But then his expression tightened. “No, it is to be expected. If you don’t want Gyousou-sama to be labeled the usurper, you need to act with all due haste.”
“I am not familiar with the particulars. However, the Taiho made it clear that Asen could not be to be enthroned unless Gyousou-sama first abdicated. That’s why I was dispatched the Kan’you Mountain. In short, until Gyousou-sama abdicates, he remains the emperor. Only then can Asen accede to the throne.”
“Gyousou-sama is our liege and is in our camp. Abdication is out of the question.”
Yuushou nodded. “If no abdication is forthcoming, other means may be found. Should the Divine Will manifest itself to that end, His Highness would find himself aligned himself with those calling for rebellion. Asen must be overthrown before that happens.”
Yuushou spoke softly, a mixture of emotions playing across his face.
“Excuse me,” interrupted Oukou. “I don’t understand what you mean by the manifestation of the Divine Will. But as long as Gyousou-sama is still alive, there is no reason for the Divine Will to move in one way or the other.”
“I am no more enlightened than you on the subject,” Yuushou admitted, and briefly summed up how matters stood.
Listening to him, Sougen again recalled how Moku’u had cautioned them against putting too much weight in these reports. It was all strange in the extreme.
“What do the people in the Imperial Palace think?”
“They find it hard to believe but have no choice but to believe. Because that is what the Taiho said.”
“Could this be a scheme or stratagem on the part of the Taiho?”
Yuushou reacted with a startled expression. “A scheme—by the Taiho?” he said, eyes wide. And then he furrowed his brows. “That is possible. Chou’un and his faction did express those same doubts on a regular basis.”
“Are there people giving voice to such misgivings?” Risai interjected. “Is the Taiho doing all right?”
“As far as I know, he is doing fine. Because of the questionable people about, his freedom has been curtailed. But as you might expect, nobody has been able to stand in his way for long.”
“The Taiho should have had a companion with him. His name is Kouryou.”
“Yes, he was with the Taiho. One of Eishou’s retainers, wasn’t he? But Kouryou is no longer in the Imperial Palace.”
“No longer there?”
“He escaped and went on the lam. He attempted to help Seirai.”
“How is Seirai faring?”
“I wouldn’t say he is doing well. He is alive. Kouryou tried to rescue him from his predicament. He disposed of the guards and managed to make contact with Seirai. But I guess he couldn’t take Seirai with him, and fled before it became clear what he had done. I am not privy to more detailed information beyond that.”
“Is the Taiho by himself?”
“I couldn’t say how isolated he is. He does have people around him committed to his safety and well-being.”
Risai breathed a sigh of relief, as did Sougen, who said, “There are a mountain of things I would like to ask Yuushou. But let’s leave them for another day. Risai needs to rest too. It won’t be long until our departure.
Risai nodded and left the main hall. When she returned to her room, Kuushou from Danpou Temple was waiting for her.
“I heard you’re leaving early in the morning,” Kuushou said. “Here.” He handed her a package. “Not necessarily as austere as military fashion might dictate. But he can’t have his sword getting separated from his person. Regular traveling clothes won’t do while wearing a sword. I apologize that this was originally garb for an apprentice.”
“Thank you.” Risai reverently accepted the bundle of clerical robes.
Beneath the conical bamboo hat and hood was a windbreaker and black outer robe designed to keep the cold at bay. The set also included a white tunic and divided skirt, tekkou gloves that covered the back of the hand and wrist, and shin guards. It was a wardrobe Risai had gotten used to seeing in Jou Province. That stood to reason, as the monks of Danpou Temple carried weapons.
The outfit rather resembled the white top and bottom halves Risai and her fellow officers wore beneath their armor. Though fairly thin material, the wool blend was the same as that in military winter gear. The tekkou gloves and shin guards issued by the military were made from leather. The monks, of course, made theirs from cloth, perhaps preserving the heft and thickness with cotton padding, bound together by fine stitching.
Risai packed everything together with new undergarments and footwear and waited for Gyousou to arrive from Rokou. After he completed his own preparations for the journey and went to bed, Risai arranged the items next to him. Along with the bell tied to his scabbard she attached the passport that Taiki had left with her.
The passport had been endorsed by the Imperial Kei. Should the situation arise, the mark of the Kei Privy Seal might even serve as a sort of talisman.
At the first light of dawn, a small band numbering but a dozen kijuu set off from the ruins of Saihou and headed west.
Those bidding them farewell watched until the silhouettes of the kijuu disappeared out of sight and then silently slipped back into shadows of the ruins.