ain fell on Kouki for the first time in many days. The rain gouged gullies in the snow that had accumulated in the shadows and steadily washed it away.
The depths of the previous winter were now behind them. With Chou’un banished from the Imperial Court, the ministers had already refocused their attention on the shifting tides of power. For the time being, the position of Chousai remained unfilled.
The portfolio of the Chousai was taken over by Ansaku. Ansaku was Chou’un’s protege. The ranks of the anti-Chou’un faction remained formidable and they attempted to use the opportunity to shut him out of the Imperial Court.
The final decision was left up to Asen. “Well, for now, let’s see how he does.”
So Ansaku was appointed on a wait-and-see basis. The ministers had a hard time disagreeing with that line of reasoning.
There were also a few who observed, “He had a front row seat to all of Chou’un’s biggest mistakes. He should know what he’s doing,” and approved of him taking over the job. And those who held him in poor regard for not having racked up any great achievements. With opinions about him evenly split, Ansaku got to work as the acting Chousai, paying all due respect to Asen and the Rikkan. The initial objections to him faded from public view.
With Chou’un gone and the keystone position of the Chousai no longer the face of the government, the ministers who had tied their careers to the Chousai also found themselves sidelined, which had the equal and opposite effect of diminishing the power of the opposing forces. Thought at first to be the most promising candidate, Kashaku failed rather spectacularly to garner any support.
The simple fact of the matter was, the civil service had gotten tired of all the political wheeling and dealing. Many believed a new era was about to dawn. There was no need to question the complex inner workings of the government. They couldn’t go wrong by following the Saiho, who was also the kirin.
The power behind Taiki’s pronouncements continued to grow. Some among the Rikkan were wary of that power, but after following and supporting Chou’un, and given the mess he’d made of things, they had no real choice but to act on Taiki’s advice. Nobody gave any weight to those who criticized Taiki for amassing the power he now wielded.
The kingdom began to move with a newfound vitality. Aid was delivered to the refugees with unprecedented speed. Regional distribution warehouses short of supplies were replenished. Reconstruction of the cities continued apace and employment increased. Villages that consumed their seed grains over the winter had their stocks replenished for the planting season.
And then came news that Yuushou’s army had been destroyed in Bun Province.
“Yuushou?” Asen queried.
Ansaku answered with a deep bow. The messenger who arrived by air said that Yuushou’s army had been routed and driven from the field.
“Three battalions under Yuushou’s command had invaded territory held by the land gangs en route to Kan’you Mountain when all communication with them ceased. According to survivors who escaped from the battlefield, the three battalions were decimated and Yuushou was either captured or killed.”
Asen looked at Ansaku and then at the Minister of Summer kneeling behind him. He couldn’t make out either of their expressions. As if readying themselves for a hurricane, they practically had their foreheads affixed to the floor.
“Shukuyou, I’m asked you what happened.”
He’d given Yuushou the simple mission of surveying Kan’you Mountain in order to extract Gyousou from his subterranean prison. There shouldn’t have been any need to engage in hostilities to begin with. And even if there had, he couldn’t see how Yuushou could have possibly lost.
“Yes, Your Highness,” said Shukuyou, who appeared trying to shrink through the cracks in the floor. “I don’t understand myself. As best we can tell, the region around Kan’you Mountain is occupied by the land gangs. The army took one city fortress from the land gangs. They left a battalion there and one in Rin’u, and then advanced on Kan’you Mountain. What we know for certain is that a battle commenced and the forces under Yuushou’s command were routed. Many of the officers and soldiers have not returned and Yuushou himself vanished.”
“How many of these land gangs?”
Mulling over the question himself, Asen had to wonder if the land gangs in the vicinity of Kan’you Mountain even had the numbers to realistically engage the Imperial Army. He didn’t think so, though he had no basis for that conclusion. The main land gangs should have been annihilated during the turmoil of the subjugation campaigns. But not all of them.
In the intervening years, Asen had paid no attention to the land gangs in Bun Province. Since the conclusion of the subjugation campaigns, their existence simply had no meaning to him. And yet in the meantime, they’d not only survived but grown to such numbers.
Even if they regained all their lost ground, he had grave doubts that they’d be able to take on the Imperial Army. To be sure, the land gangs governed their territory with a mailed fist. But they weren’t soldiers. In equal or even superior numbers, he didn’t see how they could defeat a better armed and better trained Imperial Army.
“We don’t know their troop strength,” Shukuyou said. “Bun Province has no good idea either, other than they appear to control many towns and cities around Kan’you Mountain. The region was once governed by Kan Shire. The shire castle was in the city of Saiho, the gateway to Kan’you Mountain. Except it was destroyed during the subjugation campaigns.”
Ansaku said, “In other words, the destruction of the shire castle gave the land gangs the opening to exert complete control over Kan Shire?”
Shukuyou nodded. “I think that pretty much sums it up.”
“One shire comprises two thousand, five hundred households. Under normal circumstances, that rounds out to a population of five thousand.”
“I cannot imagine there are that many left in the shire,” Shukuyou countered. “But then Yuushou was commanding a force of twenty-five hundred. Many more than that would be required to so decisively crush his regiment.”
“Fifteen hundred. Yuushou stationed reserve battalions in both Rin’u and Sokou.”
“Even so, we’re talking about the Imperial Army. Against fifteen hundred Imperial Army soldiers, the land gangs would need five times or ten times that number.”
“We’ve been taking the land gangs for granted. Moreover, Yuushou did not go there to fight. He had no idea of the extent to which the land gangs occupied and controlled the area.”
“Be that as it may,” interrupted an irritated Asen. “What has Bun Province been doing all this time? To start with, how can the government have no good grasp of how many people are involved in the occupation of Kan’you Mountain?”
He spoke in a stern tone of voice but just as quickly felt his temper wane. Refusing to challenge the occupation by the land gangs and remaining ignorant of their true numbers—there was no mystery. The province lord of Bun was another one of those mindless mannequins. He wouldn’t lift a finger unless Asen ordered him to. Since losing all interest in Bun Province, Asen hadn’t ordered anybody there to do anything.
Shukuyou prostrated himself on the floor, mouthing a stream of apologies, as Ansaku looked on with a reproachful expression. Neither of them turned a critical eye toward Asen. Of course. They didn’t know what was really going on in Bun Province. Asen was likely the only person in Kouki who knew what happened in Bun Province and was familiar with the true state of affairs there.
Asen was cursing his inattentive self under his breath when a hollow-eyed undersecretary approached him from behind. “Ukou,” he said in a small voice.
Asen nodded. “That’s enough of this for now,” he said in a cool tone of voice. “Just make sure you two get a handle on what is going on.”
After he dismissed them with a wave of his hand, and the two withdrew in a groveling manner, a brazen Ukou strode into the room. He didn’t kowtow or even kneel, only walked right up to Asen.
“So he came back,” Asen grumbled. Yuushou hadn’t returned but Ukou had. On the one hand, that was a good thing because Asen had to know what was going on in Bun Province. On the other, Asen was equally irritated that the man hadn’t conveniently gotten himself killed. And the latter reaction won out.
Maybe his toughness accounted for his survival. Or maybe he just wasn’t tough enough to ride to Yuushou’s rescue. Whether Ukou hadn’t been inclined the help Yuushou from the start, or simply wasn’t capable of doing anything about it, the loss of three battalions certainly wasn’t weighing on his mind.
Ukou’s ugly red uniform bore a few more stains than before but few additional blemishes. The man himself didn’t appear injured in the least. Asen didn’t have any difficulty imagining him picking easy fights and turning tail as soon as battle turned against him.
Ukou’s answer to Asen’s curt question with unexpected ferocity. “Gyousou was there.”
Asen almost rose to his feet. He managed to stifle the urge. “Meaning what?”
“Meaning exactly what I said. That man didn’t just crawl out of his grave. He was reborn from the land of the dead.”
Ukou sat down on the floor cross-legged.
“Yuushou was excessively naive. I told him about Gyousou and he was still too sparing with his soldiers. He cares too much about appearances. I said he should either kill the land gangs or enslave them. But he cared more about having himself a nice little textbook battle. That’s what tripped him up.”
After indulging in a bout of coarse laughter, he went on, explaining how they fought at a city north of Rin’u called Sokou. Ukou advised Yuushou to wipe them all out. Yuushou didn’t agree. They traded blows with the land gangs and their ilk. As a result, a large number retreated to Anpuku.
“We faced off against them again in Anpuku. This time, they were holed up in a fortress. Probably wanted to give the women and children time to escape. We waited outside the city. As expected, they came running.”
Ukou flashed a dark smile. Asen didn’t ask what he did to them. He didn’t want to sully his ears.
“How many of these land gangs?”
“I couldn’t give you an exact number. There weren’t that many confronting us in Anpuku. Probably more than a battalion. Less than two.”
A single battalion consisted of five hundred soldiers. Two came to a thousand. The land gangs in Bun Province probably numbered closer to the latter, but as a fighting force, they’d never been that big to begin with.
“They couldn’t take out a force of that size?”
Ukou said with a dismissive sneer, “Yuushou was never in the mood to fight. He had orders to investigate Kan’you Mountain so that’s all he thought about. If he could smash them with a direct attack, that’s what he’d do. But if they ran away, he was fine with that too. That kind of stupid naivete was a bad habit of his.”
“Even so, it wasn’t a fight he should have lost.”
Yuushou had three battalions under his command. Many more soldiers and they were better armed and equipped. The Imperial Army had kijuu and winter weapons. Many of the senior staff were registered in the Book of Wizards. The land gangs didn’t have winter weapons. Under normal circumstances, they’d have a hard time badly wounding a wizard with ordinary swords and lances.
Any battle between the two sides should have ended as soon as it began.
“They called up reinforcements.”
“They were in pursuit of the land gangs after they fled Anpuku. That’s when the reinforcements showed up.”
“Was Gyousou leading them?”
Ukou shook his head. “Nothing like that. A bunch more of the land gangs. Maybe some of those chivalrous knights among them. Not regular soldiers. Not in formation and organized like an army.”
Ukou and his men weren’t expecting reinforcements so they scattered.
“Back to the previous discussion, the land gangs numbered maybe eight hundred or so. We didn’t hear about there being more of them and Yuushou’s guys didn’t figured that into their calculations.”
“Enough about Yuushou,” Asen said. He’d be fine never hearing Ukou utter his name again. “And then?”
“That’s the sum of it. Those reinforcements came after us so we bugged out. That’s when my men got cut down by Gyousou. I would have liked to go one on one with him, but I figured updating you about the situation was more important.”
Ukou advised Yuushou to get Gyousou. Yuushou acted at once but sent only two platoons. They probably couldn’t have taken him into custody in any case. By the time they ran around mobilizing the whole army, it’d be too late.
“Then the reinforcements showed up. And here we are.”
If you asked him, he’d say the reinforcements who showed up after that exceeded the total that had assembled so far.
“It was the crack of dawn and the battlefield was pretty much a free for all, so it was hard to tell. But we’re talking about a considerable number, with a bunch of veterans mixed up among them. I could tell by the way they fought.”
“Probably. Gyousou’s retainers and rebel forces.”
“That doesn’t make sense. They’re enemies of the land gangs.”
Ukou shrugged. “Maybe they were ordinary rebels. That makes the Imperial Army losing to them all the more pathetic. Your week-kneed retainers had no stomach for the fight. They weren’t ready to take up arms, and when fresh troops showed up, they were clean out of luck. They looked for an opening and scampered away from the battlefield. Just as I could have told you, everyone who takes their marching orders from a lily-livered general will end up heading for the hills.”
Asen glared at Ukou. Yuushou was no coward, and Ukou was the last person to be throwing that kind of abuse around. He felt the anger rising in his gut but averted his eyes from Ukou’s scornful face and choked it down.
A mean man resorts to low means. He needed someone with dirty hands to clean up the mess Yuushou and his men had left behind.
Asen forced himself to maintain a cool demeanor. “And what of Gyousou?”
“Like I should know,” was Ukou’s answer. “Maybe Yuushou caught up with him. Or maybe he couldn’t even accomplish that. Probably the latter.”
“That’s enough,” Asen said, and dismissed him.
“I’ll send for my reward money later,” Ukou answered, the avarice written all over his face. With a cackle of coarse laughter, he turned his back and walked away.
That was the moment at which Asen’s gut instincts solidified into murderous intent. The man knew too much. Let the hired help handle the dirty jobs was far too glib a solution for this situation.
Because Gyousou was out there somewhere.
Soldiers had to be sent to Bun Province. No matter what, Gyousou had to be taken into custody. When had he escaped from his prison? Asen could only imagine that someone must have been excavating Kan’you Mountain. The land gangs, perhaps? Gyousou and the land gangs should be mortal enemies. But that didn’t mean they weren’t willing to lend each other a hand.
Or these were just rebels dressed up like the land gangs. When he thought about it a little more, that was certainly possible.
Gyousou put himself in command of the rebel faction. Except they should have realized they were exposing their presence. They should expect reprisals as a matter of course. And yet they were still there in Bun Province. Though even if they were, they could be counted on to move all the important people to a safe location, starting with Gyousou.
The problem came down to guess where would they go if they left Bun Province. Common sense dictated that they had safe havens across the border in I Province and Jou Province.
He summoned Shukuyou. “Strengthen our troop presence in I Province and Jou Province and dispatch more soldiers to Bun Province.”
While delivering those orders, it occurred to him that that Jou and I weren’t the likely locations, after all. Gyousou would be on guard against such counter moves and would anticipate Asen building up forces there.
What would I do if I were him?
He’d do the last think anybody expected and head west to Ba Province or south to Kou Province. But did Gyousou have any strongholds there? Without one, Asen didn’t think Gyousou would risk making a move in that direction.
“The Bun Provincial castle.”
That depended on how many allies Gyousou had amassed. If they had the numbers to capture the castle, they’d take it in one fell swoop. If they didn’t, they’d storm the closest comparable fortress in the vicinity. A much safer option than Ba Province or Kou Province, where they had no firm base of operations.
They may be getting ready to lay siege to the castle right around now.
Asen summoned the Rikkan. “A rebellion has broken out in Bun Province, likely led by remnants of the Imperial Army.”
He managed to keep Gyousou’s name out of the discussion. The throne still belonged to Gyousou. He could hardly divulge that he was leading the rebels. The moment that information got out, Asen would be branded the rebel.
“By remnants of the Imperial Army, do you mean Gyousou’s retainers? They and the land gangs joined forces?”
Shukuyou was nodding in the affirmative when a messenger ran into the room. “A second dispatch arrived from Bun Province. Elements of the Zui Provincial Guard have been observed in Bun Province.”
“The Zui Provincial Guard.”
Asen and the assembled ministers bristled with anger. The messenger prostrated himself on the floor.
“Eyewitnesses reported seeing what they believed to be the general of the Zui Provincial Army of the Center.”
“The general of the Zui Provincial Army of the Center. Risai?”
So she’s alive, Asen muttered to himself.
He’d heard nothing about her for so long he assumed she was dead. He’d sullied her name with the label of regicide. After that, she had to run for her life, with the whole kingdom in pursuit. When it came to Risai, Asen as well had tenaciously stuck to her tail, making her fight for every inch of her freedom.
In the end, she made clean her escape, though she wouldn’t have had an easy time of it. She lost her home town, friends old and new. That she was still alive was no small surprise. All the more remarkable was her continuing will to fight. What could account for such stubborn zeal?
She must loath him, and certainly nurtured a righteous indignation toward the current state of affairs. But Asen had to wonder if that was the sum of the situation.
Risai had always struck him as a odd duck. She wasn’t one of Gyousou’s retainers. Far from it, she went on the Shouzan with Gyousou. If anything, he was the one who stole the throne from under her nose. Nevertheless, Gyousou appointed her to important positions that she accepted. From Asen’s long experience, in such a situation, Risai should feel no little enmity toward him.
Well, he wasn’t one to make the mistake of confusing cause and effect. The decision wasn’t ultimately up to Gyousou, after all. But ministers and military officers alike were wont to go with their gut and come up with the reasons afterward.
Too bad their paths hadn’t crossed earlier. He had to wonder what they’d say to each other if they’d met back when he and Gyousou were vying with each other as fellow generals in the Imperial Army.
Well, that was water long under the bridge. Ruminating about it now wouldn’t change a thing.
A flustered Shukuyou raised his voice. “What if—what if Risai-dono is in Bun Province too?”
Asen mulled it over. “We should probably assume she is there. Yes, Risai is very likely in Bun Province. She is undoubtedly leading the rebels and allied themselves with the land gangs.”
Risai and Gyousou. Otherwise, Yuushou wouldn’t have been driven so easily from the field.
“Risai-dono is a former general. Armed civilians are flying the flag of revolt. This is a rebellion on a completely different scale!”
Asen took in the flustered Shukuyou and bellowed, “What are you running away from? They’re nothing more than the stragglers from a lost cause! They lost their retainers and managed to patch together a fighting force by forging alliances with the land gangs and rebels. Nothing more than the desperate leftovers from the last war.”
Asen gazed about the room. “Yuushou didn’t go to Bun Province to fight in the first place. There’s no reason to heap praise on the enemy that defeated him. There’s no reason to be afraid of a bunch of bandits. Except his defeat is bound to inspire seditious elements in the kingdom and that is going to be a problem. We have to strike while the iron is hot. Dispatch soldiers to Bun Province on the double and destroy them!”
“Yes, sir!” Shukuyou said, kowtowing before him.
Risai is alive.
The man by the name of Genkan quietly slipped away.
She’d been on the run for seven years, had joined hands with the land gangs, and managed to amass that much power.
But what comes next?
The rebels under Risai’s command in Bun Province had come to Asen’s attention. If the past was and guide, a subjugation campaign was sure to follow.
“No. That won’t necessarily be the case,” Genkan said to himself. Asen wasn’t about to let these rebels off the hook. But he didn’t have the capability carry out the kind of subjugation campaign he had in the past. Because now the moral weight Taiki brought to the situation hung like a heavy stone around his neck.
Still, Risai was going to find herself in increasingly dangerous straits going forward. Knowing that picking a fight with Yuushou would reveal their presence there, they had nevertheless gone ahead and kicked the hornet’s nest. They must be confident of the countermeasures they would take next. They were no pushovers but they could not rest on their laurels.
Everything depended on keeping Risai alive and kicking.