aving nothing in particular to do, Rokuta spent his days wandering around the expansive palace grounds. The cooks peering from the galley—with a clear view all the way to Atsuyu’s sleeping quarters—frowned at his lackadaisical attitude. But he couldn’t sit down, kick back and relax.
Two months had passed since his abduction.
Rokuta pondered what to do about that. The whole thing was a mistake from beginning to end: Kouya becoming his enemy, Atsuyu plotting revolution, and him being here, the carefree prisoner. He should slip away from the provincial palace and bring his concerns directly to the emperor and the Imperial Army, but there was no way that was going to happen.
Troops had already been deployed around the outskirts of Ganboku and preparing to meet the enemy. Anticipating a decisive battle at Ganboku, provincial guardsmen scattered here and there were recalled and concentrated into a single force at the foot of the palace.
Observing what was going on, Rokuta felt he had to do something. To the west of Ganboku, the watchfires of the Imperial Army dotted the mountains overlooking the Rokusui River. War was inevitable. It could only be days until the fighting started in earnest.
He had to do something. He simply didn’t know what. He was out of time. If he didn’t act soon, there’d be no going back.
Rokuta was impatiently chewing his fingernails in his jail cell when Ribi sat down in front of him, holding the child in her arms.
“Taiho, won’t you please tell me what is troubling you so?”
“It’s nothing,” Rokuta mumbled. “Just down in the dumps, that’s all. Nothing to worry about.”
“Now that you mention it, you don’t seem too preoccupied with whatever it is.”
“Naw, it’s not worth that much effort. Anyway, Atsuyu is a well-liked man. I haven’t heard a single bad thing about him from anybody in the palace. If it was Shouryuu, on the other hand, nobody would hold back.”
Ribi sighed and patted the child on the back. “However competent Atsuyu may be, in no way can he be compared to the emperor.”
“You sure have got Shouryuu’s back. But Atsuyu is the kind of man who gets things done. Since coming here, I haven’t seen him sitting around watching the grass grow.”
“They say he’s daring and resolute, knows how to balance the head and the heart. He’s generous and understanding. Shouryuu could learn a thing or two from him. I can almost believe that leaving the affairs of state up to him would be an improvement.”
Ribi drew her brows and frowned. Straightening and half-rising out of her seat, she said, “Taiho, you can’t be serious.”
“I am serious.”
“Why do you talking like that? Don’t you believe in the emperor you yourself chose?”
“Believing’s got nothing to do with it.” Rokuta smiled. “He really is an idiot.”
“The emperor is nobody’s fool. I think the role of ruler suits him well. That is why I chose to serve him.”
“Ah, Ribi, don’t tell me you have a thing for him?”
Now she sounded really angry. Rokuta reflexively ducked a bit. He knew what was going on. His restlessness was getting the better of him, so now he was picking fights with Ribi.
“It’s so sad. Why must you belittle His Highness so? Why did you urge the throne upon him then?
“Don’t ask me. Ask the Lord God Creator instead.”
“Taiho—” Ribi straightened again and said, “When I was appointed a viceroy, His Highness apologized to me.”
“Shouryuu did? How strange.”
“He said that the province lords didn’t answer to him. And if he tried to constrain their authority, they would surely rise up against him.”
Ribi had answered the emperor: “No matter. You can’t allow them to do however they please. You will have to dismiss them eventually. Some will fight back, even rise up in arms. Pilfering the provincial treasury is the least of our problems. You must be on your guard to make sure they are not raising armies behind your back.”
Her own words soon came home to roost.
“I expect to meet fierce resistance when reorganizing the province lords. To nip such impulses in the bud, make sure they follow the Divine Decrees and keep their armies within the legal limits, to prevent them conspiring together, we must have governors general there on the ground.
“You are bestowing such an enormous responsibility upon me?”
Ribi bowed reverentially, overcome by the gravity of what was being asked of her. She was a lower-ranked official in the criminal courts, the equivalent of a baron. Being abruptly raised to the post of viscount couldn’t help but make her feel she was rising above her station.
Shouryuu shook his head. “Don’t go thanking me yet. If the province lords raise the flag of insurrection, the viceroys will find themselves on the front lines. Ordering a viceroy to take up residence in a provincial palace could turn out to be a death sentence. The problem is, I’m playing on this chess board with very few pieces. I’m not one for handing out death sentences, but I don’t have anybody other than you qualified to go.”
Ribi fell still for a moment before facing the emperor, an unusually serious expression on her face. “I greatly appreciate you being so candid with me. Whatever the odds may be, I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
“To tell the truth, I was deeply uncertain whether to appoint you or Shukou the eighth provincial viceroy. But adding up both your strong and weak points, you were the person better suited for the job. Shukou may not look it, but his temper gets the better of him. Regardless what else is going on in the provincial palace, you must hold your tongue, observe, and report. Aside from specific instructions, don’t get tangled up in long-winded exhortations. I’m afraid that’s something Shukou just hasn’t the patience for.”
“Will you do this for me?”
“I happily accept the post.”
Shouryuu nodded. I’m sorry, she heard him say. The low, tense sound of his voice was forever etched in her thoughts.
“Huh,” Rokuta responded listlessly, staring off into the distance.
Ribi said, “That was the first time I’ve seen him looking so—serious. However he may play the fool, he is not irresponsible. He gives thought to those things that deserve thought, and acts when action is truly called for. He simply doesn’t let it show.”
“And maybe you’re trying too hard to see the best in him.” Rokuta smiled. “Shukou and the others would weep to hear you carry on in such a manner. They’d tell you the people closest to him wear themselves ragged picking up the pieces he leaves behind. He skips out on Privy Council meetings, sallies off to who knows where, every word goes in one ear and out the other while he does whatever he decided to do in the first place.”
“But His Highness hasn’t actually done anything wrong. Itan and the others go on about how he’s a good-for-nothing lay-about, while the emperor has deported himself in a most magnanimous manner. As a result, even when things were at their worst, we never succumbed to despair.”
“You really do have a soft spot for Shouryuu.”
Ribi sadly shook her head. “Why do you say things like that? To even imagine that you have no faith in the emperor grieves me terribly.”
“I firmly believe the emperor is anything but an incompetent ruler. He selected the most discerning ministers from among the civil service and placed the most important offices in their capable hands. There can be no doubts about that.”
“Important offices? I’ll grant you that an imperial viceroy counts as such. It is never far removed from actual danger. Itan and Shukou risk little. But they are barons at best, no?”
Rokuta meant it as a jest. Ribi only shook her head. “Which is why the expected waves of discord never arose. His Highness ignored those countless bureaucrats who spent their time playing king of the mountain while the kingdom sank into chaos. Rather, he settled on those of us not in competition for any office. I was promoted to viscount in a capacity far removed from the gaze of other court officials. And so the Imperial Court was not torn by envy and discord.”
“The Suijin is at best a middle-ranked baron, and he has the important duty of managing the kingdom’s lands. When tax monies intended for flood control project disappear into a minister’s pocket, what happens to the shoddily-built levees? Even in the Ministry of Earth, this portfolio critical to the well being of the people was given to Itan. The Suijin is outranked only by the Daishito and his permanent undersecretary, a crook and a coward who would never deign to get their hands dirty doing honest work. Except Itan isn’t intimidated by the likes of them, so the countryside has recovered.”
Rokuta didn’t respond.
“Shukou is the Imperial Magistrate, a lower-ranked baron at best. The Imperial Magistrate is independent of the court and can discipline even province lords, the only minister who reports directly to the emperor. Seishou is the Daiboku, and the closest to the emperor in the Ministry of Summer. He can stand close by in the shadows and protect the emperor against traitors and turncoats. He can cut a path through the fools in the bureaucracy so Shukou and Seishou can do their jobs.”
“Ribi, enough already,” Rokuta sighed, but she wasn’t finished.
“The emperor gave Itan the position of Suijin. Without a minister of internal revenue or anyone to administer the imperial estates, over half of all taxes were disappearing into the pockets of corrupt officials. Since the new dynasty began, the estates themselves haven’t paid a penny in taxes, supposedly because of repeated crop failures. The restoration of the public lands, not the productivity of the imperial estates, was always the first priority. That’s why Itan was given that job. Can’t you see how these priorities reflect his concern for his subjects?”
“Shouryuu is no tyrant. I know that. But it doesn’t matter. Because he’s still the man in charge.”
Ribi let out a long breath. Her eyes cast down, she was silent for a while. Finally she placed the child in her lap on the floor and got to her feet.
“Taiho, do not forget. The destruction of the kingdom made the people suffer. The coronation of the new emperor made them rejoice.”
She walked around in back of him. Rokuta started to turn around to look at her, but he couldn’t as she had grasped him by the shoulders.
“Taiho, the leader you chose for us is Shouryuu-sama. It is not and never will be Atsuyu.”
“Ribi, it’s not that I—” don’t believe in Shouryuu, he was going to say. It’s emperors I don’t believe in.
“We are waiting for the Emperor of En, for Shouryuu-sama.”
“I know. But—”
“In a few more days, the Imperial Army will reach Ganboku.”
Rokuta wanted to glance behind him, but Ribi wrapped her arms around him. He couldn’t even crane his head back. Her pale hands cradled his chin.
“It’s time for you to return to the Imperial Palace,” she said, and shifted her hands up to his forehead.
Before he could stop her, she ripped away the stone sealing his horn. He heard the sound of tearing thread, a sound as light and airy as spider’s silk, and as heavy as lead.