1-4 Emperor En and his considerable but backassward abilities were being taken to task in a private room in the Inner Palace.
“Yeah, I get where you guys are coming from,” Shouryuu said, glancing around at the four men accosting him.
Itan glared at him in turn. “You get it? That’s all?”
“I have mended my ways.”
“Never before can I recall being placed in such a mortifying position. I fear the humiliation of that experience will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
“Hear, hear,” piped up a voice of agreement behind him, but Itan paid it no mind.
“Indeed,” Shukou said with a sigh.
“In exactly what position does His Highness imagine he occupies? As the captain of the ship of state, how does he intend to bring the rest of the ministers into line? What should stand as a beacon and an example to the kingdom is—this. I could not bring myself to look your loyal subjects in the face.”
“Absolutely.” The man with an utterly impassive face who hardly ever said a thing now had more than a few words to say. “My jaw drops open with sheer astonishment. To be associated with such an imperial fool is more than I can bear.”
“Whimsy, so even you’re grousing out loud about me?”
Whimsy was his nickname. His real name was Seishou, a thin young man with tawny skin and a small frame. Nevertheless, as a secretary of military affairs, he headed the emperor’s personal detail as the Daiboku.
Seishou was promoted to the Palace Guard under Emperor Kyou. A resourceful and skilled fighter, he was said to be without equal in the military arts. He was arrested for criticizing the emperor, but even the corrupt Emperor Kyou could not bear to execute him and had him imprisoned instead.
After the emperor died, he was ordered released. But Seishou said that, having been imprisoned by imperial order, he could only be pardoned by someone with the same authority. The stubborn man stuck to his principles and sat in his unlocked jail cell for close on the next fifty years.
“I would respectfully ask that you not refer to me in such a condescending manner.”
“You don’t like?”
“Of course not.”
Itan gave the peeved Seishou an envious look. “Better than mine. I’m Foolhardy.”
There could be no greater honor than the emperor bestowing a name of his own choosing upon one of his subjects, though they could hardly be pleased when that name was Foolhardy or Reckless or Whimsy. As far as that went, his nickname for the Saiho, Rokuta, was simply “Fool,” because a kirin was “halfway between a horse and a deer.”
The Emperor was awfully pleased with the pun, though it was hardly a joke anybody else was bound to laugh at.
“Sakes alive,” Chotatsu said with a pained expression of his own. “We’ve become naught but a laughing stock.”
“You got that right.”
This time the three turned as one to the owner of those impulsive interjections. “The Taiho is just as guilty as he is!”
The cold glare of their eyes fell upon him. Rokuta shrugged. “Hey, I’m not the one with the gambling habit.”
“May I ask, then, what you were up to during your absences from the court?”
Pressed by Shukou, Rokuta forced a smile to his face. “Oh, I was out and about observing the, um, recovery of the countryside.”
“And how might you summarize the results of those observations?”
“Little backbiting traitor.”
Rokuta looked at his liege. “For starters, you’re the one living the life of a libertine. And now it rubbing off on me! You’re right, not funny.”
“Says the kid playing hooky.”
“There’s playing hooky and then there’s dropping out and skipping town!”
“Six of one, a half dozen of the other.”
“How little the six are and how big the half-dozen are makes a big difference where I come from!”
Shukou slammed his fist down on the table. “Could you two take this seriously, please?”
Shouryuu held up his hand. “Sorry. After this, I will be sure to tend to government affairs. Happy?”
“Can we take that as a statement your of sincere intent?”
“There’s the stink of suspicious goings-on in the west. It’d be a good idea in any case to lay low and keep the throne warm for a while.”
The four all looked at Shouryuu. “The west—”
Shouryuu smiled. “Gen Province. Better get ready because here she comes.”
Itan could help glancing behind him. He’d been sure to clear out the premises when he’d called this assembly together and again confirmed that there was no one else there.
“That is—” By she, the emperor meant Gen Province.
“Heard on the street. Gen Province has been feeling its oats of late. Soldiers from Gen are showing up in the city several times a month, spending like drunken sailors in the brothels. They arrive empty-handed and leave loaded down with baggage.”
“Something’s being stockpiled in Kankyuu?”
“Not a problem if it’s food. But weapons—”
Shukou cocked his head to the side. “I can’t imagine them amassing the amount of weaponry required to arm a rebellion. If they were scouring the city for military supplies, the rumors would reach us sooner or later.”
Shouryuu smiled and turned to Seishou. “The Imperial Armory is in Kankyuu.”
Seishou’s eyes narrowed. Was the administrator of the armories supplying the black market? Emperor Kyou had stockpiled an excessive amount of military hardware. A fair amount had since been sold off in order to replenish the Imperial Treasury, though saturating the market and driving down prices in the process. As a result, the armories were still piled high.
“The Province Lord of Gen?” Shukou said.
Itan nodded. “The word is, fearing the disfavor of Emperor Kyou, and then fearing the retribution of his subjects after he fell, and now fearing getting sacked, he’s barricaded himself deep within his palace and won’t come out. They say he’s a bundle of nerves.”
“A cornered rat will bite the cat. With their backs against the wall, these holdovers are a real worry. To make matters worse, the chief cabinet secretary reportedly has a sharp mind and all of his wits about him. His name’s Atsuyu, son of the Province Lord, I believe.”
Itan blinked. “Your Highness is certainly well informed.”
“Just a few of the rumors going around the city. You ignore what the common man knows at your own peril.
“But, of course,” said Itan. He sounded honestly impressed.
Shukou glanced at him and cleared his throat. “With all due respect, Your Highness—”
“There is no need for you to mingle with your subjects like an ordinary commoner and prowl about pretending to be a spy!”
Shouryuu rolled his eyes at the ceiling. Rokuta grinned at him and got to his feet.
“What’s up, Rokuta?”
On his way out the room, Rokuta glanced back over his shoulder. “Seeing as the conversation is turning in a direction that’s got nothing to do with me, I’m leaving.”