en days after the Taiho disappeared, an envoy arrived from Gen Province.
“Gen Province? You don’t say.”
Shouryuu was in the middle of the Privy Council meeting, pretending to pay attention to the fault-finding and critiques offered up by the ministers. The Rikkan had been dismissed. The vice-ministers who’d risen through the ranks as protégés of their bosses were now whining about the dismissals.
Thankful for the interruption, Shouryuu ordered that the envoy be shown in. A short time later, a man in his fifties, dressed in formal court attire, entered the room. He knelt before the throne and bowed his head
“So you’re from Gen Province, eh?”
The man touched his forehead to the floor. “I am the provincial prime minister of Gen. My name is In Hakutaku.”
“So what business brings you here?”
Hakutaku took a document from his pocket and held it over his prostrated head. “A letter to the emperor from the chief cabinet secretary.”
“You can raise your head. I’d rather listen to your mouth doing the talking, not the top of your head.”
Hakutaku raised a face framed by a white beard. “However presumptuous it is of me to say so, the Taiho Enki presently resides in Gen Province.”
The assembled ministers collectively caught their breath.
“You are to establish a position above that of the emperor to which our leader, Secretary Gen, will be appointed.”
Atsuyu’s surname name was Gen. His given name was Setsu, though he currently went by Yuu.
“How about that. Atsuyu doesn’t want to be emperor. He wants to do the emperor one better. You certainly have thought this one through.”
“Secretary Gen means no insult to Your Highness. The dignity of the imperial position remains unchallenged. Only the acting authority would be relinquished.”
“Would he settle for being prime minister?”
“Unfortunately, he cannot accept a position that would subordinate him to the emperor.”
“So he’s either superior to the emperor or no deal, eh?”
“Both a de facto emperor and de jure emperor serving simultaneously would tear a kingdom apart. Instead, relinquish your authority in deed and in name. Remove yourself to the imperial villa. There amidst the woods and fields, leave the vulgar world behind and turn your heart instead to the fields of lovely young lilies contending for your attention.”
Shouryuu roared with laughter. “Well, if you put it that way. So I raise Atsuyu to a position higher even than my own and then retire to the countryside to live out my days basking the rustic beauty of the blooming flowers.”
Hakutaku bowed his head to the ground.
Shouryuu said, “Tell Atsuyu the following—”
“I am not so broadminded a man as to give to others what is mine by right.”
“Your Highness,” came a raised voice from among the ministers. Shouryuu shushed him with a wave of his hand.
“Tell Atsuyu that if he returns Enki, I will be compassionate enough to allow him to take his own life in a manner of his own choosing. But keep stirring up trouble while hiding behind Enki and I will track Atsuyu down and execute him as a traitor to the kingdom.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Hakutaku bowed deeply and said, “I understand.”
Shouryuu stood and drew the sword at his waist. Only the emperor and his bodyguards were allowed to carry weapons in the Privy Council room.
“Hakutaku, tell me, did you think I would just let you walk out of here and go on your merry way?”
Still kowtowing, Hakutaku answered in a clear voice. “No.”
“You’re the provincial prime minister. Did Atsuyu force you to come here as the envoy?”
“I asked to be appointed as such. I knew from the start that my chances of returning home were negligible. Better myself than a younger man with the rest of his life still before him.”
“The typical answer to demands like those would be your head on a platter.”
“Arrangements have already been made with my family.”
Shouryuu planted one knee in front of Hakutaku. He nudged the tip of the sword against his throat, forcing him to raise his head. “You know the fate of a traitor?”
“I never had any doubts.”
Not a flicker of doubt showed in Hakutaku’s eyes. Impressed, Shouryuu showed a wry smile. “A man with guts. I like that. It’d be a shame to kill you. What would you say to serving in the imperial government instead?
“I only serve Secretary Gen.”
“And here I thought the ultimate allegiance of every minister in this kingdom was to the emperor.”
“The province lord of Gen granted me this position. He was appointed by Emperor Kyou. My current rank cannot be credit to Your Highness. It is, however, within your power to affirm your confidence in the province lord by hereafter guaranteeing the permanency of his office.”
Shouryuu grinned and sheathed the sword. “I see you have a stake in this game, after all.”
Hakutaku only nodded.
“So all it takes is for your lord to command it and you willingly participate in this insurrection? Wouldn’t the proper path for a provincial prime minister be to rebuke a wayward secretary?”
“The secretary has claims of his own. Please take into consideration the burden born by a man who dares to wear the mantle of a traitor.”
“To start out with, Atsuyu is not the province lord and cannot make you answer to him. Isn’t he the son of the province lord? Isn’t nepotism against the rules?”
“The province lord has withdrawn from the political realm and relinquished power to the secretary. The provincial civil service voices no opposition to this arrangement. His qualities being clear to all those who have worked with him, we have accepted him as our leader.”
“Making him the province lord in all but name? You’ve managed a two-fold betrayal. The emperor appoints the province lord. It doesn’t matter what the provincial civil service agrees to, it is not up to them to decide. And that not being enough already, you want the throne as well.”
“Remonstrate with me as you will, but as far as the province lord is concerned, this is a settled matter.”
“Of course it is.”
Shouryuu got to his feet. He said with a casual wave of his hand, “You can leave. Tell Atsuyu what I told you.”
“Are you allowing me to return to Gen?”
“Well, somebody has to tell him. It might as well be you. Go back and join their ranks as a fellow conspirator.”
“I’d rather this wasn’t settled by the force of arms. If the spirit so moves you, perhaps you could prevail on Atsuyu to think better of this course of action.”
“If the spirit so moves me?”
For the first time, Hakutaku looked at Shouryuu directly. Shouryuu averted his gaze with a smile. “This world puts a lot of stock in the Divine Will. If I’m in fact the emperor chosen by Heaven, then this rebellion has no chance of succeeding. But if you want to test that proposition, go ahead and we’ll see what happens.”
“Do you believe in the authority of the Divine Will?”
“Belief’s got nothing to do with it,” Shouryuu said. “As long as I’m the one sitting on the throne, I’ve got no reason to doubt it. But if you don’t think it exists, then what are you doing paying me any reverence?”
“That question does go to the heart of the matter.”
“Everyone suffers when civil war breaks out. But trample on the Divine Will, throw down the gauntlet, and I will pick up it up.”
Shouryuu glanced around at the joy and sorrow etched on the faces of those around him. “Escort the prime minister to the borders of Sei. I’m in no mood to send one of our own envoys and have him executed by Atsuyu. So the man who allows any harm to come to the prime minister will get to go in his place.”