1-4 The next day, the Privy Council began in a gloomy mood. The six ministers met in the antechamber of the Imperial Court. They sat there in silence, eyes not meeting. Despite the imposition of a code of silence, news of Sairin's condition was being whispered about. And the accusing glances were directed at the one person who had met with Sairin face-to-face: Shuka.
Eishuku hadn't returned to the ministerial residence the night before. Shuka didn't know whether this was due to the demands of his work, or because he'd been conferring with Shishou. Seeking him out in the antechamber, she found him slumped over in a corner of the antechamber, eyes downcast. He looked depressed.
The gong rang, bringing the meeting to order. The ministers lined up and solemnly proceeded from the antechamber into the Gaiden. Nobody spoke as they walked down the short corridor. It was not a long walk to the Gaiden, but by the time they arrived the tension covered them like a blanket.
They entered the Gaiden and arranged themselves in a line and knelt down. The tenseness all around them felt like needles jabbed into the skin.
Nobody dared looked directly at the throne. The gong sounded a different tone. The pearl curtain was lowered. The ministers all realized that they had been holding their breaths. Behind the curtain the figure of the king appeared, the man who had ostensibly departed from the Divine Will.
The sound of the slight rustling of fabric echoed around the room, cutting the silence like a knife. The gong rang again and the curtain was raised before the kneeling ministers. Shuka did not wish to raise her forehead from the floor. At this moment, nothing could be more trying than beholding Shisho's face.
But the command came from the Taisai of the Ministry of Heaven to raise their heads and Shuka found herself looking directly at the throne. There her faltering gaze met the jet black throne and Shishou seated upon it.
The sight struck her like a blow to the chest. He was wearing a black and yellow silk jacket. Seated in the throne encrusted with mother-of-pearl, arrayed against a folding screen covered with gold leaf, Shishou appeared as stunning as always. His well-exercised physique, his intelligent mien, eyes still brimming with ambition, bright with the majesty of his office.
The Taisai's order was followed by three strikes of the gong. Eishuku rose to his feet to read the meeting's itinerary. Before he could begin, Shishou held up his hand. He gazed down upon the ministers. Then his deep, ringing voice rang out in tones as crisp and clear as when he'd led Kouto.
"The Taiho's health has again prevented her from attending today's session." Addressing the ministers specifically, he said, "I've been hearing many disquieting rumors about the Taiho's condition. The Rikkan appears to be gripped by doubts sufficient to bring the Imperial Court to a standstill. And yet, as I have stated time and again, there is no reason for us to slow our pace or retreat."
The eyes of all the ministers remained focused on Shishou.
"Is it possible that governing a kingdom should be an easy thing? Do you think we could march merrily forward with no obstacles in our way and no uncertainties holding us back? If all our paths were straight and even, would a government ever lose its way? Would a king ever stray from the Way? The road ahead will only grow more difficult."
Shishou added forcefully, "However, I have seen the kingdom as it should be. That is the belief that propelled me on the Shouzan, and according to which I received the Mandate of Heaven. Ever since then, I have been surveying the road leading us to that ideal. Losing sight of that ideal is as good as parting from the Way. But I have seen what our kingdom can become, and I shall be laying the groundwork that will take us there. No matter how rough the terrain may be, do not doubt that we are headed in the right direction. If you question the strength of my convictions, it cannot be because I am confused in the slightest about our goals. It is because your ideals have faltered in the face of the steep and precipitous climb that awaits us."
Shuka caught her breath. Her ideals were indeed in a state of flux. And that was because of the irreconcilable reality before her. She could beat her head against that wall and it would not budge. She could not erase the question in her mind—that the ideals held out to them had been flawed from the onset.
As if he could read her mind, Shishou's gaze singled her out in the front row of ministers. A slight smile came to his lips. "I have not wavered in the slightest. I see as clearly as I ever have—what should have been clear to you as well all along."
Shishou glanced at the row of ministers kneeling there in the Gaiden. Shishou said in a strong, self-assured voice, "There will be no yielding to despair or confusion. Our will must not be broken!"
As if battered by his words, the Daishikou kneeling next to Shuka bent his body even lower. The robes of the kowtowing ministers to her right and left rustled like falling leaves. Only the image of profound discouragement on the exhausted Eishuku's face swam into the vision of the bewildered Shuka.
He turned his face away, sighed, and then glanced over his shoulder at the ministers. His eyes met hers. He subtly shook his head
With a great sense of sorrow, Shuka lowered her head. So that's that. Eishuku must have visited Shishou the night before. They would have spent the night hashing over Sai's problems and Sairin's condition. Her crushing realization was that Shishou's pronouncement must be the product of the night's discussion.
Any doubts about Shishou or misgivings about his ideals would be put down to disappointed expectations and a lack of fortitude.
And yet— Shuka had seen Sairin. If she wasn't suffering from the shitsudou, then what? This incarnation of charity had cursed Shuka from her sickbed—with a look that spoke more of a heart filled with hate.