tsuyu mused aloud, “I hear the Taiho is not faring well. How serious is his condition?”
To answer the question for himself, he visited the dungeon the next day, accompanied by Kouya.
While he was sleeping, Ribi must have moved Rokuta to the bed. That was where he found himself lying when he awoke. Atsuyu knelt respectfully at the head of the bed.
“Nothing to worry about,” Rokuta assured him “It’s just the blood getting to me.”
“I don’t know a great deal about kirin. Is this the kind of condition that calls for more medical attention?”
“I’ll be okay.”
Rokuta tried to sit up but the fever hadn’t broken. Ribi rushed over and restrained him. “Please rest. This is the only body you’ve got.”
“It’s hardly the sort of thing that’s going to kill me. Oh, and Atsuyu?”
“Yes.” The kneeling Atsuyu bowed his head.
“Are the Rokusui levees your only concern? If so, I’ll badger the Suijin until he hops to and gets started on the construction.”
“Taiho,” said Atsuyu, “do you know how many rivers there are in En? And how many of those are equipped with levees that can survive the rainy season?”
“Sorry. I don’t have a clue.”
“Neither do I. Only that the Rokusui is one of our more famous rivers. Considering the state of disrepair it is in, you can begin to fathom what the rest must be like. Don’t you think?”
“You’re probably right.” Rokuta looked into Atsuyu’s fearless eyes. “But a kingdom is not a small place. When it comes to flood control alone, the demand already far outstrips the supply of labor. Ministerial staffs are miniscule. We can’t go hauling people—preoccupied with bringing in the next harvest—off their farms to man every public works project. Surely you understand that a kingdom can’t be turned around overnight.”
“I do understand.” Atsuyu took a breath and let it out. “But why must the Divine Decrees stipulate a province lord and the imperial viceroys serving at the same time? Stripping the province lords of their authority has effectively made unified provincial action impossible without the approval of the viceroy. I understand what condition the kingdom is in and why such things had to be done. But shouldn’t that mean the viceroys must also take on the duties of the province lord?”
“Well, that is—”
“The Rokusui is a constant threat. The levees must be built. Rather than leaving it in the hands of the province lord, if it truly would be faster for the viceroy to petition the emperor, receive approval, and supervise the effort, I never would have taken such drastic measures.”
Rokuta was momentarily at a loss for words.
“From what I hear, far from being consumed night and days with the affairs of state, the emperor is often absent from the privy council, leaving the ministers to search high and low for him. Then why deprive the province lords of the authority to act on behalf of their subjects?”
“Autonomous rule must be returned to the provinces. The emperor is the focal point of a kingdom’s yin and yang, and I am in no position to judge one way or another. But if the emperor so dislikes the business of government, he should return that governing authority to the province lords. Leave the rest to the Rikkan and nobody would complain about how he spends his spare time.”
“Except this kingdom remains a work in progress. All the province lords pursuing their various objectives however they see fit are just as liable to make things worse. Take flood control. What accrues to the benefit of upstream provinces may well leave those downstream high and dry.”
“Then why not install officials with the full authority to act? Let them act as agents for the emperor and leave everything to them. Can you really tell me I’m being so out of line?”
“Then there’s the matter of saving face. I completely understand that. But what good is the reputation of an emperor who can’t help his subjects? I intend to ask the emperor that he appoint a regent to whom he can entrust all of his authority.”
“Not so much ask as demand. Atsuyu, although I can’t find fault with the substance of what you’ve said, taking hostages invariably calls into question the merits of your proposal.”
“Utter rubbish!” Ribi abruptly exclaimed.
Rokuta cast a startled glance over his shoulder. Ribi was standing at the foot of the bed, a taut expression on her face.
“What in the world do you two think you’re talking about?”
“Um, Ribi, look—”
“No!” she said with a violent shake of her head. “Don’t go trying to placate me with soothing words. Can you even comprehend the grave sinfulness of what you’ve been saying?”
Rokuta looked up at her in confusion. Atsuyu showed a grim smile. Ribi walked up and interposed herself between Atsuyu and Rokuta.
“If handing over imperial authority to a third party were in the slightest degree permissible, then why do the kirin even exist? Why have the kirin choose the emperor in the first place? The kirin embodies the will of the people and heaven when placing the emperor on the throne. Are you seriously proposing to raise a man to the de facto position of emperor without the decision of the kirin and the blessing of the Divine Will?”
“Don’t you understand? That’s what this all comes down to. If—if—Atsuyu were placed in such a position, what happens if he loses the Way and runs rampant like Emperor Kyou? The reign of a duly-appointed emperor would inevitably come to an end. But what of an immortal wizard wielding the powers of an emperor? Emperor Kyou was only able to wreak havoc on En for three years!”
Rokuta sank into silence. An emperor was immortal but that did not mean he could rule forever. If he turned his back on the Way and acted against the best interests of his subjects, the kirin who placed him on the throne would suffer the repercussions.
And though the kirin who’d chosen an emperor was also immortal, there was no cure for this malady. The shitsudou, the disease that struck down the kirin when the emperor strayed from the Way, would also kill the emperor. And so a despot could not rule forever.
“The Lord God Creator fashioned this world and organized everything in it. Why is it that the emperor is chosen by the kirin and is simply not king of the hill? No man can become emperor without the express recognition of the Divine Will. Doing otherwise threatens the very foundation of the world.”
Atsuyu smirked. “Have you forgotten? A kirin chose Emperor Kyou.”
“Emperors now and then do become tyrants. They stray from the Way and fall from power and so the tenure of their despotism is brought to an end. But that raises the question of why the kirin should have ever decided on such a man.”
“Do you hold the Divine Will in such contempt?”
“I only state what is real and what is true. It is said that the kirin has the entire populace to choose from, and thus places the best person on the throne. Then why settle on a man like Emperor Kyou? If this were the miraculous expression of the Divine Will, then surely the kirin would only enthrone those who would not stray from the Way. For all this talk of the Divine Will and the kirin’s choice, where is proof in their efficacy?”
“It all starts with the Lord God Creator, doesn’t it? They say the gods punish the wicked with thunder and lightning. So instead of afflicting the kirin, why not just strike down a wayward emperor with a bolt of lightning?”
“I can’t believe I’m standing here listening to you say such outrageous things!”
“If it’s true that the kirin chooses the very best person for the job, then show me the proof. If the Lord God Creator exists, then perhaps he could pay us a visit. I do not say this frivolously: he and his ilk do not exist. And if they did, they don’t matter. If that makes me a heretic, then may lightning from heaven strike me down here and now.”
Ribi didn’t know how to respond to such arguments. To her mind, doubting the majesty of the Lord God Creator was no different than questioning reality itself.
Atsuyu only smiled. “Here is a creature who chose his own master and chooses to follow no other. A creature possessed of great and magical powers, gentle by disposition and keen of intellect. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that our forebears, prizing this creature’s extraordinary talents, out of gratitude, made their decision into laws of nature.”
Ribi leapt to her feet anger. “Damn you, Atsuyu!”
Rokuta patted her on the back. “Maybe you could show your respect for the kirin by calming own a bit when your around one of them.”
Ribi caught her breath and hung her head. “I’m sorry.”
“No problem.” Rokuta said to Atsuyu, “So you’re claiming the kirin placing an emperor on the throne is a mistake from the start?”
Atsuyu’s eyes glinted like polished steel. “Can the Taiho say with conviction that the present emperor the very best man for the job?”
Rokuta returned the look. Of course he had every reason in the world to respond in the affirmative to such a question. And yet he instead spoke the truth.
“No.” He smiled. “But I don’t accept the premise of your question, Atsuyu. I’ve always thought we’d do better without an emperor at all.”
“A strange thing for a kirin to admit.”
“Indeed. And from the heart.”
“Taiho!” Ribi practically wailed.
Rokuta turned to her. “Ribi, when I first saw Shouryuu, I definitely thought to myself, There stands an emperor.”
“In that case—”
“The man who will destroy En.”
Ribi gaped at him.
“Shouryuu will tear En up by the roots. This is not something Shouryuu has anything to say about. It is what emperors do.”
Rokuta faced Atsuyu directly. “If you’d simply proposed to strip the emperor of his authority, I might have condoned the effort. But you want to turn around and bestow it all on one minister. That would create a godlike position higher in station than the emperor. To which I would tell you to think again.”
Atsuyu eyes narrowed. “You truly speak of strange things, Taiho.”
“All authority is vested in the emperor, authority that is useless unless exercised by he who holds it.”
In the twenty years since the coronation, the kingdom was at last beginning to mend. But during its long winter of discontent, had only the bad had slept well? Perhaps the emperor had simply lacked the latitude and resources to oppress the people to his heart’s content.
“Should not every man be his own master? Give power to those above you and they will inevitably use it against you. That is why I believe.”
Atsuyu said with a slight nod of his head, “Alas, you speak of things I cannot comprehend.”
“Well, as far as that goes, Atsuyu, neither do I.”