When Gekkei stayed at Youshun Palace, he used a manse tucked away in a corner of the Seishin. It was close to the Sea of Clouds, the smallest building in the compound. It would have otherwise made for cramped quarters, but as he kept his retinue to a bare minimum, it was quiet and airy.
"I apologize for the plainness of the accommodations," Gekkei said to Sei, as he escorted him through the twilight.
This wasn't false humility. From the front gate through the building to the patio, there wasn't a single scroll or wall hanging to be seen. Only the bare necessities. Gekkei had informed the few servants that a guest would be arriving, so some flowers had been arranged, lanterns lit, and wine and tea set out. Despite the bleak surroundings, the results were not off-putting.
"I heard from the Chousai that you were preparing to vacate the premises. Such preparations are underway, I take it?"
Gekkei offered Sei one of the chairs on the patio overlooking the garden. "Yes, but this was never intended to be anything but temporary quarters."
"Making the round trip from here to Kei Province must be a considerable inconvenience."
"Not at all," Gekkei said with a thin smile. He poured Sei a cup of tea. The evening breeze carried with it the scent of a nearby lake. The moon rising in the purple sky skimmed the roof of the patio.
"It's not that far riding a kijuu over the Sea of Clouds. The prime minister and the Rikkan hold down the fort when I'm gone, but it is a lot to impose on them.
"And yet you have no desire to rule the kingdom."
Gekkei's hand froze as he poured the tea. "Naturally. I have trampled the Mandate of Heaven. I could not possibly assume a throne that was not rightfully given me."
"If that is true for you, then it would be just as true for everyone else who would rule in your stead. If you reject this calling and leave the Imperial Palace behind, wouldn't the ministers—beginning with the Chousai—have to follow suit? The Kingdom of Hou would soon fall apart."
Gekkei smiled bitterly. "So the general wishes me to become a usurper as well?"
"When you put it that way, perhaps I do. But I think you're going overboard. You've put the Chousai in a real bind. He doesn't believe he can hold things together. I have the feeling he's exaggerating just like you. But the fact remains that if you abandon the Palace because of your crimes, you are more or less implying that those you leave behind are blind to theirs. Neither your equally guilty colleagues nor the people you serve seem to agree with that assessment."
Gekkei offered Sei the tea. "I hadn't thought about it in exactly those terms, but you may have a point. In any case, I don't see the ministers fleeing the capital in significant numbers. Which is why, as the ringleader, I can take the fault all upon my own head. As the original guilty party, that should be my responsibility."
"I suppose so." Sei tilted his head to the side. "While I can't argue with your logic, neither do I agree with it. Your argument—that you led the insurrection and so you bear the original sin—doesn't sit right with me."
"Treason is not a sin? I cannot imagine you making such a claim before the Royal Kei."
"Not in a million years," Sei said, with a wave of his hand. "I'm not saying it isn't a sin. Just that, considering the late Royal Hou—"
Gekkei nodded. "His Highness certainly did execute many of his subjects for breaking the law. No matter how trivial the offense, the death penalty was always the verdict, and the grave the end result. No consideration was given to circumstances. Leniency was out of the question. A single infraction was the same as a death sentence."
"I have heard as much."
"His Highness was a stubborn idealist. If he was willing to put his life on the line in his pursuit of righteousness, he saw no reason to demand any less of his subjects. He came to categorically believe that no matter how minor the offense, everyone should agree that every sin deserved the death penalty."
Gekkei smiled painfully. "Prior to the accession of His Highness, I had occupied a position at the lowest rungs of the bureaucracy. During the time that the throne was vacant, the Imperial Court was a cesspool. Only His Highness remained clean and pure. Even when swords were brandished in his face, he made it clear he would choose death over dishonor."
"That is quite impressive."
"Earning his trust became synonymous with living a sinless life. Any man with a true heart esteemed that trust over any promise of fame and fortune."
Those who respected Chuutatsu were elated by his accession. They looked forward to a world ruled according to justice and virtue, to creating a kingdom in governed according to the Rules of Heaven and bound according to the rule of law.
"We set out to create a world uncontaminated by the slightest speck of corruption. Not even the slightest hint of iniquity would be allowed. Sadly, Chuutatsu was never able to translate this image in his mind into reality."
"The image in his mind—"
"Chuutatsu was the kind of man he imagined himself to be. Despite this—or because of it—unrepentant ministers were given a free rein. As long as they deferred to him in the proper manner and mouthed the things he wanted to hear, he convinced himself they must be as righteous as he. As he had no ulterior motives and no hidden agendas, he assumed that those who looked pure on the outside must be pure on the inside. You could call it a noble failing of sorts."
And the worst of them all was Chuutatsu's wife, Kaka. The face she showed him was one of unbesmirched beauty. Her heart was as black as coal.
"His Highness had every intention of creating a pure and proper kingdom and became increasingly incensed by the impure and improper world he was faced with. The laws became more draconian, the penalties more severe. And when the Taiho fell ill, His Highness grew even more frantic in his quest to make things right."
"He was going to make things right with law and punishment?"
Gekkei nodded and smiled grimly. "Up till the very end, it never seemed to dawn on him that he was going to lose the throne and his life because of the shitsudou. In that sense, he was utterly selfless in his devotion to justice as he perceived it."
Except that death swept the country like a plague. The reckless Chuutatsu made no effort to protect his own interests. His quest had been perverted into a pursuit of martyrdom in the name of justice. The terror turned indiscriminate.
"If it went on, I feared that the people of Hou would go extinct. I do not exaggerate. At the rate that things were falling apart, there soon would be no one left to execute. Somebody had to put a stop to it."
Gekkei was not trying to steal the throne. He never once thought of removing Chuutatsu in order to replace him—simply that there was no other way to stop him.
"And once I had stopped him—in the worst way possible—my duty was done. Or so I thought. Under normal circumstances, we would be tried and convicted as traitors. Or erased from the Registry of Wizards. But do that, and as you said, there would be no one left to run the kingdom. The best I can do to make recompense is retire to my provincial palace. Do you find that so strange?"
The Kei general only gave him a long and hard look.
"Oh, nothing. The Chousai filled me in about the Royal Hou, but only the rough outlines. He left me with quite a different impression."
"A different impression?"
"Based on what I heard from the Chousai, I'd formed the image of a hard, cruel man. But after listening to what you had to say, I can see that it's not that simple." Sei nodded to himself. "You seem to be saying that the Royal Hou was something other than an unpardonably bad man. So perhaps that is source of your guilt?"
"I wouldn't disagree with that." But even as he spoke, Gekkei had the feeling that Sei was saying something entirely unexpected. He still stood convicted by his crimes. But somehow "guilt" didn't quite describe what occupied his thoughts. At the same time, to deny it was indeed guilt felt like a lie as well.
He was lost in his thoughts until Sei's words hit home again. The general said, a faint smile on his lips, "I guess I have a pretty straightforward view on life. I'm fine by whatever's best for the people. If that means taking down a king that's oppressing the people, I'm fine with that too. Our rulers exist for the good of the people, the same way soldiers like ourselves exist to fight. A soldier who can't fight should find something else to do. And if he can't admit it to himself, then his friends and officers should make him see the light. I think it's the same with kings and empresses, though it's even harder for them to face the truth about themselves."
"I am a coward."
"That's not what I meant. I'm from Baku Province in the Kingdom of Kei. To tell the truth, I'm a hanjuu."
Gekkei blinked at this sudden confession. "A hanjuu? And a general?"
"Yes. Before the reign of Her Highness, hanjuu could not serve in the government. Naturally that included generalships. As foot soldiers, yes, but they could not rise through the ranks. Yet I was appointed to the Baku Provincial Guard."
"Despite being unable to win promotions?"
"The Province Lord of Baku said he didn't care. The previous empress had expressed little interest in matters of government at all. Civil servants busily fattened themselves at the expense of the people. They couldn't care less what the Province Lords were up to, so neither did my liege care."
Sei chuckled. "A bit of forgery, an unfortunate tear in the koseki record where my hanjuu status was mentioned. Nobody was bound to check anyway, my lord said. And if persons in high places did take a second look, it'd be passed off as a clerical error, or a case of mistaken identities. And if somebody got really insistent, then a little money might change hands and that'd be the end of it."
"Yes, doing the wrong thing for the right purpose. Letting the ends justify the means. I couldn't help questioning his character at first. But even the Baku Province Lord shrank from striking the Late Empress directly."
A firm expression came to Sei's face. "I believe he was truly conflicted. In particular, after the Late Empress ordered that all the women be driven from the land. In one way or another, they nevertheless chose to remain. When this became apparent and the word came down to arrest and execute them, his consternation only deepened. Baku Province faces the Blue Sea, and the women to be exiled gathered in the port towns. Nobody wanted to leave. But they would be killed if they remained, and so they had no choice but look toward foreign shores. This grieved the Baku Marquis considerably, and he concocted excuses like the ships weren't rigged and there weren't enough of them. Or everybody was willing but weren't able to go all at once. Or they were just waiting their turn and these things took time. He made up excuse after excuse, all the while stiffening the defenses around the port towns. Luckily, things resolved themselves before anybody's bluff was called. But that he would go to such lengths must have meant he was resolved in his own mind."
After this soliloquy, Sei craned his head to the side, as if unsure about what he had just said.
"Or rather, when push came to shove, he was resolved to consider the possibilities. He never once talked about actually targeting the Late Empress. Yes, when I think back about it now, the one remaining question was how the Baku Marquis would react if the women he was protecting were killed. Listening to your story, I have the feeling that was the one thing he was not willing to do."
"You think so?"
"I thought so at the time. Perhaps because regicide is such a drastic step. My lord had every intention of saving his people. But no intention of seizing the throne for himself and calling himself king. I remember thinking at the time that it's not the kind of thing a man can do unless he's got that burning desire in the gut."
He gave Gekkei a smile. "But you did decide."
Gekkei was momentarily at a loss for words.
"If the Province Lord had told me to assassinate the Late Empress, I probably would have saluted and followed orders. But I don't think I could have acted on my own. While I certainly thought that the suffering of the people demanded that something be done, that was a decision better left to the Province Lord. And if he commanded it, I don't think I would have given it a second thought. Nor do I believe I would have worried about it afterwards or blamed myself. Not just because my commanding officer would have born the responsibility. Fact is, I'm not as smart as guys like you. The moral import of what I was doing simply wouldn't have sunken through my thick skull."
"I don't know if I would—"
Sei shook his head. "That's what it comes down to. Though I don't think it makes it any less grievous a sin. What I mean to say is, I didn't harbor the specific intent or grasp the enormity of what we were contemplating. But ignorance of the law by itself can constitute just as serious a crime. I could even accept that committing such a sin without comprehending its nature doubles its severity. To resolve yourself with a clear understanding of what the act entailed speaks to the thought you must have given it."
Sei faced Gekkei and said with a kindly expression. "It says a lot about how much you cared for the people. And that is that kind of person who ought to sit on the throne."
Gekkei kicked his chair back and stood up. "That's not it."
"I can't see dressing up what we did in such refined motives. I killed the man who bore the Mandate of Heaven. Despite the infirmed state of the Taiho, despite High Highness's apparent lack of a desire to reclaim the Mandate, the possibilities of him doing so were not zero. Yet deciding for myself—sight unseen—that things would only get worse, I assassinated the King."
Sei glanced at Gekkei, a confused expression on his face.
"In any other case of high treason, there would be nothing admirable about what I did. The ministers, the generals, and even the Royal Kyou want me to take the throne. And if I do, then I really would have stolen the throne from His Highness. I didn't kill him because I wanted his position. If other methods had availed themselves—"
Gekkei suddenly stopped speaking. Growing ever more agitated and he spoke, he felt his words becoming twisted and tangled in his head.
The look on Sei's face didn't change. With a quizzical expression he said, "Was what you did a simple case of high treason? Supposing that it was, weren't you left with no other recourses and forced to act?"
"Without a doubt," Gekkei groaned, covering his face with hands as he again took his seat. "I'm sorry. I'm not exactly expressing myself coherently."
"Not at all," Sei answered softly. A long minute later he said to himself, "But of course." When Gekkei raised his head, he gazed at him as if catching in his features the sight of something sad and painful. "You must have really revered the Royal Hou."