1-3 Buffeted by a brisk breeze, Shukou strode along the walkways of the Imperial Palace and exited the Inner Palace.
En was the northeast kingdom in the group of “Four States” (Sai, Kyou, En, and Kou). It was a cold land, scoured and chilled by the dry seasonal winds pouring out of the northeast during the winter, and buffeted by the cool prevailing breezes blowing off the Black Sea in the summer.
Summer soon slipped by and fall stole in. The prevailing winds weakened day by day. The land warmed by the sun gave up its heat to the atmosphere. The summers were cool and rain rarely fell, making it a place not well-suited for the cultivation of plants.
The autumns, on the other hand, were long, airy and warm. Then the seasonal winds picked up again and winter sprang upon them, as if from out of the blue.
Above the Sea of Clouds, the Imperial Palace was isolated from the seasons that visited the land below. But for the time being, the breezes blew here no differently. Autumn would soon be upon them. At the end of autumn came a month of rain. After the rain came the joufuu, the bone-dry, bone-shaking cold gales that spilled out of the Kingdom of Tai.
“The Rokusui—I can only hope we’re in time.” Shukou gazed west across the Sea of Clouds and asked himself again: Would the levees be in place by the time the rains came?
The mighty Rokusui River flowed from Sei Province, home to Kankyuu, to Gen Province on the Black Sea. Gen Province was known for its wide plains and fertile fields, formed from the silt left behind by the yearly flooding of the Rokusui.
The area had been uninhabitable since Emperor Kyou breached the levees facing the sea along the coast. Refugees who’d finally been able to return home had started on the restoration work. Word was the number of settlements was large and growing beyond the ability of the province lord of Gen to manage.
To start with, he had no actual authority to implement flood control measures. The province lords appointed by the previous emperor still hadn’t been properly dealt with. Most of them held onto their titles while stripped of actual authority.
Shukou sighed and set off once again, only to meet Itan coming up the stone staircase. “How did it go?” Shukou asked with smile.
“Oh, I collared him and hauled him back here. He’s in the Inner Palace changing outfits.”
Meaning they would have passed through the Forbidden Gate on their way to the Inner Palace. After saying whatever needed to be said there, he’d apparently returned through the Sei Gate.
Above the Sea of Clouds, only the Forbidden Gate had direct access to Gen’ei Palace. The corridor climbing the mountain from its base in Kankyuu to the summit passed through five gates. By tradition, the emperor and the Taiho alone had access to the Forbidden Gate.
Itan had been granted a special exemption, though in this regard alone he proved particular strict about the letter of the law and did not abuse the privilege.
“In that case, I’ll head there as well. There’s a few things I need to get off my chest.”
“Please, don’t hold back. Tell him exactly how you feel. Where do you think I found him?”
“Gambling at a brothel in Kankyuu, where he apparently got taken for everything but the clothes on his back. He’d put up his horse as collateral and was stuck there. When I caught up with him, he was sweeping out the place with a broom, working off the balance doing janitorial chores.”
Shukou laughed out loud. “That’s Shouryuu for you. Did you cover his debts?”
“He’s not one to run away from the bill collector, don’t you know. If I didn’t, he was going to keep at until it was all paid back. I couldn’t very well collar the proprietor and explain that he was the emperor and could you please write it off? It’d be a crushing disappointment to his subjects to see the mighty Imperial En reduced to such a sorry state.”
En had once teetered on the verge of destruction. That was how deep the wrack and ruin ran. Shouryuu accession to the throne was an answer to his subject’s prayers. The last thing they needed to see was exactly how those prayers had been answered.
“That man is too damned happy-go-lucky for his own good.”
Shukou couldn’t help smiling to himself. It was hard to imagine any court official who regularly rubbed shoulders with the emperor describing him in such terms.
Itan once held the post of Denryou, the minister responsible for the accounting of tax receipts and managing the population. After the change of regimes, he was chosen as Suijin. The emperor nicknamed him “Impetuous” and bestowed on him a wide range of special privileges.
He had free access to the emperor’s sleeping quarters, could use the Forbidden Gate, ride his horse into the Inner Palace, and didn’t have to kowtow in the emperor’s presence. Berating him behind his back, though, probably wasn’t on the list.
“He’s a bighearted man, which is probably why we still have our jobs and our heads.”
The newly coronated emperor had been seated on his throne in Gen’ei Palace, the ministers and court officials gathered around singing his praises. In the midst of these festivities, Itan had grabbed the census records and thrown them down at the emperor’s feet.
Itan grimaced. “Let’s not go dredging up ancient history.”
Millennia ago, back at the dawn of time, Tentei, the Lord God Creator, reached down from Heaven and raised up the Twelve Kingdoms. A human being was chosen and placed on the throne.
The actual selection was made by the kirin. There was but one kirin in each kingdom, a divine beast of great power who hearkened to the will of Tentei. The kirin was born on Mt. Hou (known as Taishan in China) in the center of the world. The subject of a kingdom who wished to become emperor would climb Mt. Hou and meet with the kirin. This traveling to Mt. Hou to ascertain the Divine Will through the kirin was called the Shouzan.
So why did Itan slam down the census on the Imperial Dais?
“Why has the Imperial Accession taken fourteen years? Six years is plenty long enough for the kirin to choose the next emperor. You lounged around for eight years before going to Mt. Hou! Eight years wasted! Here are the census records from those eight years. See with you own two eyes how many of your subjects in Kankyuu died during that time!”
The merry atmosphere of the coronation fell still as death. Itan stared at the emperor sitting on the throne. A deeply intrigued look on his face, the emperor glanced back and forth from the census records lying on the dais to Itan.
That was probably a little rash. Itan only wanted to communicate to the new ruler the wretched state that En was in. The scale of the destruction had to be seen to believed. The throne room and surrounding palace were suffused with light. The world below was filled with death and ruin.
Every last one of them clung to the hope that if only a new emperor were to accede to the throne, the world would begin to right itself. Itan wasn’t so naive as to believe that alone would be enough.
Even though he knew as well that such insolence invited a quick end to his life, Itan himself was hardly a suicidal man.
During the despotic reign of Emperor Kyou, he’d remained loyal while not turning his back on the Way, had endeavored to not arouse the emperor’s displeasure while staying true to his own conscience. And so walking that moral, ethical, and political tightrope, he’d managed to hold onto his head.
The ministers all said that with the coronation of the new emperor, a new day would dawn. Except the emperor could not erase what had already happened. There was no bringing the dead back to life. Itan despised the ministers who put all of that out of their minds and mindlessly celebrated the coronation, and no less the emperor for the same reasons.
No matter what, the emperor wouldn’t likely forget such an incident occurring in the midst of these grand settings. Witnessing the execution of a retainer so soon after the coronation would force the ministers to recall the despotism of emperor Kyou. That’d surely dampen the giddiness.
If nothing else, Itan had to hope this wanton display of insolence would lodge like a stone in the craws of those silly celebrants.
He looked at the emperor. The emperor looked back at him. For a long moment, the air seemed to freeze. Everybody else in attendance stood like statues around them.
The emperor was the first to move. He stepped down from the throne, picked up the census records, dusted them off, and said with a smile and a nod at Itan, “I’ll take a look at these.”
Itan stared in disbelief until the guards dragged him out. The then Daishito (Minister of Earth) stripped him of his position. Itan obediently returned home and awaited judgment under house arrest.
He had no desire to run away. Besides, with a doubling of the guards posted at the front gate, that would be impossible. He remained confined for five days. On the sixth, a messenger from the Imperial Palace knocked on his front door and delivered the verdict: he’d been reinstated and appointed Suijin.
When the flabbergasted Itan returned to the Imperial Palace to express his thanks, the emperor said with a grin, “Ah, there’s the foolhardy man himself!”
The nickname had stuck ever since.
“At the time I’d just been seated as a junior minister. I heard the rumors and dearly wished I was there.”
Shukou flashed an intrigued smile that only left Itan disheartened. However interesting others might find the story, it was anything but a laughing matter for him. He honestly thought he was going to die.
Naturally, at first Itan had nothing but respect for the emperor and voiced not a word of complaint. But those stores of devotion were exhausted in a flash. There was simply nothing about the man worth admiring. How could he bow his head to an emperor who gambled with the petty cash and idled away the hours engaged in anything but the pressing affairs of state?
“Frankly, I loath myself now for being so easily taken in by his magnanimity. He isn’t magnanimous. He’s lazy.”
“Itan, perhaps you should govern your tongue a little more judiciously? Minding your manners and paying a bit more of the proper deference would do wonders for your peace of mind.”
Itan looked at Shukou. “You are hardly one to talk.”
Shukou was originally a junior minister in the Ministry of Spring, attached to the Naishi, the Imperial Scribe. During an inspection tour, he had addressed the emperor directly: “We’ve been working on your posthumous name. So far we’ve come up with Prince of Prosperity and Prince of Destruction. Will you raise En from the ashes or burn it to cinders once again?”
When Itan reminded him of this, Shukou countered with a slight smile, “I was only playing the part of a good baron. Apparently, it’s the best way to win promotion around here.”
“That excuse won’t work with me. It was the third day after the coronation. I was still under house arrest.”
“Oh? My memory must be failing me in my old age.”
Itan scowled at Shukou’s clear, composed face. Though their youthful countenances suggested otherwise, their true ages suggested they should both be very well on in years.
“Well, that junior minister is now the Imperial Magistrate. Goodness gracious, but His Highness is a generous man.”
I don’t much care for either name, the emperor had replied.
Shukou’s recklessness and Itan’s impatience had much in common. Shukou also knew he was putting his life on the line. He hadn’t even been so much as a minister, but a low-ranked civil servant hired as a personal aide to the Naishi. Addressing the emperor directly was a grave offense. He could have been executed on the spot.
Instead, the emperor scowled and said, “So that’s a no to both. It’s embarrassing to imagine myself referred to with such prosaic language.”
“Eh?” was Shukou’s response.
The emperor turned his gaze directly on him. “With all your literary talents, that’s the best you brilliant scribes could conduct? At least come up with something a bit more witty.”
“Makes me wonder if you’re really suited to be a scribe.”
Probably not, the abashed Shukou concluded. The best resolution he could hope for was his dismissal. But then a court messenger arrived with the news that he’d been promoted to the position of secretary to the Naishi, an intermediate ministerial rank. He was later appointed Imperial Magistrate in the Ministry of Fall.
Itan said, “It must because you and I ended up in his inner circle. Perhaps the emperor takes a liking to those who impudently speak their minds.”
“That may well be the case.”
Shukou laughed. Though upon hearing footsteps coming down the corridor, he wiped the smile from his face. Coming toward them was the Chousai and his attendants. According to protocol, Shukou and Itan bowed and yielded the way.
The Chousai’s voice rang out. “Ah, I do believe this corridor continues onto the Inner Palace.”
“You,” said one of the attendants, addressing himself to Shukou. “What are you doing here? I can’t imagine you’re lost.”
Neither Shukou nor Itan answered. A restricted number of ministers had access to the Inner Palace. At one time, those with their rank weren’t allowed at all. They’d been specifically authorized by the emperor, undeniably special treatment. Not a few chose to express their jealousy with similar sarcastic asides. Shukou and Itan had grown used to it by now.
“Are you headed to the Inner Palace now?”
“Yes,” Itan said shortly.
The Chousai let out a loud sigh. “My word. As if His Highness has any interest in governing anything.”
“It must be playtime with his favorite pets.”
“Interrupt him and you’ll catch an earful. When in the world is he going to exert an equal effort on behalf of the government?”
“It’s because of all these underlings bending his ear and leading him astray.”
The sneering voice passed by them like a rancid breeze. They were probably returning to their offices east of the Inner Palace. Itan waited for the sound of footsteps to fade away before raising his head. He looked down the cobblestone path winding through among the buildings.
“Who are the underlings here?” he said with a sneer of his own. “A bunch of corrupt opportunists who purchased their posts from Emperor Kyou.”
The sarcasm aside, Itan’s description wasn’t far off. When Emperor Kyou strayed from the Way, he lost all interest in governing the kingdom. Ministers exploiting the situation for their own gain only deepened the despotism.
Some traded political appointment for money. When the bribes didn’t add up to their satisfaction, they resorted to looting the Imperial Treasury. Far from taking Emperor Kyou to task for the atrocities he perpetrated, they fanned the flames to win his favor, watching the kingdom burn before their very eyes.
“Best to let them be. Sarcasm is about all their little minds can manage.”
“They’re blaming us for the His Highness’s wanton ways. Because that’s what they would do, they paint everybody else with the same brush.”
Itan ground his teeth. Shukou said with a wry smile, “Well, sticks and stones, you know.”
Itan was Suijin, a position equivalent to a mid-ranked baron in the Imperial bureaucracy. The Chousai was a marquis. That the lowly Suijin, four levels below him, should enjoy such special privileges, while the Chousai couldn’t see the emperor without going through the usual intermediaries, obviously ticked him off.
It didn’t help at all that Shukou, a low-ranked baron, was subordinate even to Itan.
“Just brush it off, eh? Something has to be done about those fools!”
“Hardly news to me.”
“Seishou has a lot to answer for! He’s the closest to His Highness. He should grab him and hogtie him to the throne!”
Itan couldn’t resist badmouthing even the emperor’s personal bodyguard. Caught a bit off guard, Shukou gave him a surprised look, “This has really got your dander up.”
“And not yours? They’re making us out to be a pair of two-bit pimps and hustlers, dragging His Highness off to one debauchery after the other!”
“Well, chin up. Don’t let it get to you.”
“Idiot! They’re talking about you too!”
“Let the blabbermouths blabber to their heart’s content. His Highness will be launch a reorganization of the bureaucracy any day now.”
Climbing the stone staircase, Itan stopped. “Is that day coming tomorrow or sometime in the foreseeable future?”
“The government has settled down, the direction to take is decided, the path laid out. All that’s left to do is hitch up the wagon and start down it. A reorganization of the entire hierarchy has up till now proved a bridge too far, but the time has come to really shake things up.”
The serving ministers and province lords had been appointed by Emperor Kyou. Optimally, they should have resigned en masse on the occasion of the coronation so the new emperor could appoint a new slate of ministers. But with so many other pressing matters at hand, things had been left as they were.
Only the acting authority of the province lords had been checked. Imperial viceroys were posted in the provinces. Civil servants were not promoted to ministerial rank unless they could be personally vouched for.
But the parasites and sycophants who’d idled away the decades under Emperor Kyou, and were equally complicit in the persecution of the people, could no longer be ignored.
“The Imperial Court is in disarray. The bastards who weren’t dismissed started thinking they’d gotten away scot free and doubled down on their indiscretions. There’s no telling where and how they might try to pull the rug out from under us. For the time being, a little discretion is the better part of valor.”
“Twenty years. That’s some staying power. Even so, no small number of those lowly men have experienced a change of heart.”
“Only because the cupboards in the Imperial Treasury are bare. There’s nothing left to steal. Though there have been more and more strange goings-on of late.”
“With the coming of spring, all the critters that burrowed underground to wait out the winter are beginning to stir.”
Itan cast his eyes at the surrounding buildings. “And what a long winter it was.”
At the time of the Imperial Accession—answering the heartfelt prayers of the people—Gen’ei Palace was still gilded in glimmering gold and silver. Once described in ethereal terms, those same building were now no better than drab. On the orders of the emperor, the Imperial Palace had been stripped of its adornments. The gold, silver and precious gems—down to the jewels decorating the throne itself—were sold to the highest bidder.
That was how deep the poverty in En ran.
The number of buildings had been cut by almost half. The emperor ordered them dismantled, the timbers and stone shipped to market. Only the black roofs rising up the peaks of Kankyuu Mountain remained unchanged from the previous dynasty.
The Imperial Palace itself was said to have been bestowed on the founding emperor of the kingdom by the Lord God Creator. Out of consideration for this hallowed past, while emperors had added to the palace over successive dynasties, none had removed any part of it.
That these buildings—in which the very history of the dynasty had been written—should not only be stripped of their ornamentation but dismantled and sold off piece by piece, shook the dismayed ministers like an earthquake.
Do it, the emperor ordered.
The corrupt officials who’d pillaged the Imperial Treasury and lined their own pockets under the rule of Emperor Kyou were left in place. He could have fired the ministers and province lords and confiscated their personal holdings, but couldn’t spare the time or the effort. Restoring the land and bringing in a harvest from the devastated farms took priority.
The pastures and rice paddies were scorched and blackened. It took twenty years until a farmer could plow a field and plant a crop that could sustain himself and his family. The treasures of the Imperial Palace were sold to other kingdoms, the warehouses emptied until not even a soldier’s dagger remained, and even then they had barely managed to make ends meet.
“Think of them like deposits in a bank,” the emperor had advised. “People who zealously save more than they spend won’t feel that great a loss. Only wastrels and spendthrifts will feel the pain. When the time is right, all will be restored.”
That time had now arrived.
Itan said under his breath, “He’s as carefree as the day is long, but he’s no fool.”
Shukou smiled. “Let’s just say he makes the most of his considerable abilities in the most backassward ways possible.”