21-4 The Provincial Guard was on the move.
The dispatch from Tonkou caught up with Sougen in Rokou, where he had withdrawn with his forces. More than five days had passed since Gyousou set off on his journey. As before, Sekirei raced from Hakurou to deliver the news
“On the move?”
“The Province Lord delivered the orders. They are preparing for war.”
“I see.” Sougen nodded. Asen must have become aware of their existence. He’d expected as much for some time now so he wasn’t flustered by these latest developments.
“But not like the subjugation campaigns carried out before.”
Sougen looked back at Sekirei with a puzzle expression. “Not like the subjugation campaigns?”
“In that case, they would be deploying on a far more expedited manner. Moreover, they’re ignoring the usual preparations and procedures you’d expect before a military engagement, though they are following all the legal and customary formalities. As Tonkou put it, the Provincial Guard is mobilizing by the book.”
As Sougen pondered what in the world they were up to, Yuushou said, “That makes sense. Asen can’t act in the arbitrary ways he has up until now, not with the throne dangling right in front of his eyes.”
But of course. That’s what it came down to. The next day, a communique arrived from Kouki confirming these suspicions.
“The Imperial Army is moving on Bun Province as well. Seems they’re heading north as we speak.”
“So they’re finally coming here to stamp us out for good?” Seishi said to Sougen. In Risai’s absence, Seishi had taken command of the Rin’u forces.
“Yeah,” Sougen muttered.
“The rebels and the land gangs. Anybody standing in the way of retaking Kan’you Mountain.”
That prompted a startled look from Seishi. Sougen nodded. “In other words, a full-on assault on Kan’you Mountain in order to retrieve His Highness. Except His Highness isn’t there any longer.”
“Meaning that Asen hasn’t found out yet?” Seishi wondered aloud.
Yuushou cocked his head to the side. “I find it hard to believe he’s still in the dark. At the very least, Ukou would have reported everything that he saw and heard.”
At the time, Yuushou’s retainers in the immediate vicinity overheard what Ukou told him.
“Everyone who was there with me.” Yuushou stared off into space. “I believe they are all in Rokou. I don’t believe any of my men would have run back to Kouki with that information. Ukou is the problem here.”
“What happened to Ukou after that?”
“I don’t know. How about you? Did any of you manage to take him out?”
Sougen answered in a less than certain tone of voice. “We killed fair number of those so-called Red Armor, but not all, I don’t think. There’s no way to tell whether Ukou was among them.”
“I suppose not,” Yuushou muttered.
“If they’ve still got Kan’you Mountain in their sights, that suggests that Ukou didn’t make it back to Kouki. Maybe he got killed in action west of Anpuku. Or rather, he hightailed it out of there to places unknown.”
“He very well may have run for cover. In any case, he violated every rule in the book along the way. If any of the soldiers who participated in the attack on Anpuku get back to Kouki, there definitely will be hell to pay.”
Sougen nodded. “For the time being, I think we can assume they are still in the dark. Which would make this good news.”
“Then what’s our next course of action?” Seishi asked Sougen.
“Send a messenger to Kyuusan and tell them to escape while they still can. The last time, he faced a single regiment. This time he’s got a whole division headed his way. That’s not a fight he has any chance of winning. If they really are doing things by the book this time, he can expect to be on the receiving end of a scorched earth campaign. He needs to get away, the sooner the better. Kyuusan is bound to insist that there’s no taking the land gangs for granted. But the kingdom has changed since the return of His Highness. They can’t stay wedded to the world they used to know and the way things used to be.”
Seishi raised his voice and said, “I’ll go see Kyuusan and bring him around. Any problem offering them a place here in Rokou?”
Sougen shook his head.
Seishi left the compound and headed to see Kyuusan.
Informed of Seishi’s visit, Kyuusan tossed aside his chopsticks in exasperation. He hadn’t eaten since morning and had finally got his hands on a meal. Thanks to Risai, they’d escaped certain destruction. Nevertheless, Kyuusan’s gang had suffered grievous losses. He had a mountain of things to take care of, starting with tending to the wounded, repairing the damage to the city, and getting basic services running again.
And now he had to get it done with a fraction of the manpower. He’d worked nonstop without a break or a meal. When he found a minute to sit down and eat dinner, they turned out to be short on cooks too. The only food available in sufficiently large quantities made him sick and tired just to look at.
“I apologize for interrupting. Were you in the middle of your meal?”
Kyuusan reached for a beer. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve got an empty stomach and no appetite.”
“It’s exactly at times like this when you’ve got to get something in your stomach.” Seishi hefted a boulder sized bundle onto the table. “It’s got to be tough being so shorthanded these days. I recruited the services of a local kitchen. I don’t know if there’s enough to go around but I hope it’s a start.”
“Thanks.” With a big smile, Kyuusan opened the bundle and parceled out the items to the hungry crowd that quickly surrounded the table. “We’ve got nobody here who can cook worth a damn. All they make is stuff like this.”
Seishi sat down across from Kyuusan and examined the untouched dishes. “I’ll call it gourmet as long as it’s edible,” he said with a grin. “Mind if I have some?”
Seishi explored the plate with his chopsticks. It was piled high with deep fried vegetables and mystery meat. Even after pulling it closer, all he could smell was the oil. The meat and vegetables were garnished with rice that was two-thirds a mix of grains other than rice, floating there in the oil.
Watching Seishi eat it, Kyuusan chuckled. “You soldiers really are something. You’ll eat anything.”
“It’s not that bad. Want some?”
“No,” Kyuusan said with a wave of his hand. Instead he picked up a stuffed rice cake wrapped in bamboo leaves. A delicious aroma wafted up when he peeled back the leaves. “So, what’s up?”
“Looks like another scorched earth campaign.” Seishi delivered the alarming news without the slightest hint of alarm.
“The Bun Provincial Guard and the Imperial Army are mustering their forces. One to two divisions of the former and one division of the latter. The Provincial Guard hasn’t moved out of Hakurou but the Imperial Army has left Kouki.”
His appetite vanished in a flash. Facing down a single regiment, Kyuusan’s forces racked up a serious number of casualties. Now a whole division was coming their way.
“The fruits of victory. The mighty land gangs smashed a single regiment. That kind of thing that will sober up your opponent fast.”
“We’re not the ones who defeated them.”
“Don’t worry about that. They’re not going to make any fine distinctions between you and us. They will assume we’re allies.”
“Well, it looks like we ended up that way,” Seishi quipped.
Kyuusan took in Seishi’s wry smile with mixed emotions. He didn’t recall allying the land gangs with these remnants of the Imperial Army. They weren’t at each other’s throats any longer, and depending on the circumstances, had been willing to lend each other a hand. But now they were headed in the same direction at the same time. In the end, he’d come to think of Risai and her crew as a fellow faction in the land gangs.
Meaning, if they didn’t have any reasons to fight each other, they wouldn’t. And if were good reasons for mutual profit, they would cooperate.
“I see. So now you’re the rebels.”
That’s what they were to the occupants of the Imperial Palace. Though Kyuusan and the land gangs had lived outside the law, they weren’t interested in defying the emperor. It was never their intention to become rebels. But having lent the rebels a hand, it was probably too late to avoid that label.
“Sorry about getting you involved.”
“You saved our necks. That’s nothing to apologize for. If anything, the blame should fall on us. We dug in our heels when we could have backed off. We got you caught up in a mess of our making.”
“A decision we made all on our own. We reached out and they think you’re rebels too. We figured that was in the cards, but we couldn’t look the other way.”
Seishi glanced around the room. Kyuusan’s men crowded around long end of the table as if frozen in place, their attention focused at Kyuusan and Seishi
“A lot fewer of you than before. How’s Shoukyuu?”
“He’s dead,” Kyuusan said.
Seishi let out a long sigh. “That’s too bad.”
Kyuusan struck the table with his fists. “Bad isn’t the half of it. Shoukyuu died and his wife and kid got killed outside Anpuku. The child was ten years old and he got cut down like they were gutting fish. And his wife—” Kyuusan interrupted himself in the middle of the sentence. “I can’t forgive them. So go ahead and count me among the rebels. I don’t care if that’s the label they pin on me.”
In order to help his wife and child get away, Shoukyuu stayed behind and held his ground and lost his life as a result. In the end, they all died.
“This isn’t a case of who we forgive or not. We’re talking about a whole division of the Imperial Army. There’s no winning against them. You’ve got to get away while you can.”
“What are you guys going to do?”
“We can’t run. Even if we did, if we didn’t fight the good fight and quit the field instead, we’d have no place to go. But we’re fine with that. We are working towards a goal, and as long as we accomplish that goal, we can call it a win even if we all die in combat.”
“What kind of logic is that?”
“The logic of a military man. Run or die. Either way, if it gets the job done, we can count it a win. No soldier died in vain.”
Though at the end of the day, dead is still dead, Seishi added to himself. We perished like dogs at the side of the road and ended up food for the crows. He said aloud, “But this isn’t your fight. You’ve got no reason to stick around.”
“Whatever honor or glory you think you’ve got in the balance here, there’s nothing to gain taking on a whole army division. If anybody holds you in contempt for saving your own hides, tell them to give it a try. I’m telling you to get ready to abandon Kan’you Mountain too. That time is coming.”
A voice chimed up next to him. Sekihi jumped to his feet. “Where are we supposed to run to?” Behind Sekihi, Seishi recognized the old face of Chuukatsu.
“Your best bet is to head into the mountains and from there make your way to Jou Province.”
“So we leave Kan’you Mountain and Kantaku? Abandon Takki and flee to a city where we’ve got no connections to anybody? What do we do then? Beg on the streets for a living? Indenture ourselves to the rich?”
“Better than dying.”
“Sounds like pretty much the same thing to me. Starve to death, freeze to death, or get beaten to death. You end up just as dead.”
“The weather is going to improve after this. The towns and cities won’t be so inhospitable toward outsiders.”
“And fall and winter will inevitably arrive after that.”
“Then head to Zui Province from Jou. Rumors says that the Taiho’s welfare measures are beginning to take hold.”
“That’s not the issue,” Sekihi spit out. “Don’t you get it? As long as the current regime rules the roost, it’ll be the same no matter where we go. As long as that beast sits on the throne, there’s no safe harbor where we can flee.” Sekihi looked at Kyuusan. “Like the boss says, counting us among the Black Flags is all the same the us.”
Kyuusan nodded. “That’s what it comes down to.”
Seishi took a breath. He said with a wry smile, “I still think you should run for the hills. At the very least, the elderly and wounded, along with the women and children. The rest can relocate to Rokou. There are places there where you can lie low for now and enough supplies to tide you over. People have been settling down in Rokou since the attack on Anpuku. But I’m telling you, providing you can rely on your legs taking you where you need to go, I’d put as much distance between you and us as possible.”
“So, in the meantime, mind if we whittle down the cost of room and board here?”
“It’s yours to do with as you see fit. I don’t know if it’ll be enough, though.”
“The wounded can’t run anywhere,” Kyuusan said. “We’ll put what we’ve got to good use. You have our thanks.”