5-2 Asen is the new Emperor of Tai.
Kouryou wasn’t the only one astonished by this statement. The guards and the local official who came running in response to the urgent summons were equally befuddled. Kouryou fully expected to get arrested along with Taiki. But after again ascertaining who they were and the reason for the visit, they were confined to an anteroom in the gate annex building.
This is the Taiho’s plan? Kouryou desperately wanted to ask, except with guards posted right outside the door and on patrol around the gate, the risk of being overheard was too great.
This is still completely mad.
However calm and collected he was on the outside, a cold sweat ran down his back. He just didn’t see anybody believing this lie. To start with, Gyousou still lived. It was flatly impossible for the Divine Will to be overturned while the emperor was alive. A child could see through Taiki’s claim that Asen was the “new emperor.”
For Asen, this was a heaven-sent opportunity. He’d tried to kill Taiki once before, and here was the kirin showing up on his doorstep. If the kirin died, so did the emperor. Asen failed to assassinate Gyousou on Kan’you Mountain. Now he could kill Taiki and eliminate the emperor in one fell swoop.
Any minute now, soldiers are going to burst into the room with daggers drawn.
Imagining that imminent moment, his hands trembled. Kouryou caught his breath and waited for the gathering storm to arrive. He heard a flurry of approaching footsteps, steeled his resolve, and prepared to go on the offensive. But the only person who appeared before them was the aforementioned official.
No sooner had he entered the room but he knelt down. “I am deeply sorry to have kept you waiting,” he said, practically prostrating himself on the floor. If nothing else, his excessive politeness sucked all the tension out of the room. The soldiers accompanying him bowed in unison. They showed no signs of exposing Taiki to any kind of danger.
“I will show you the way. Please, after me.”
So they were not being treated as a hostile presence. The guards did not even inspect their personal effects or confiscate their packs or Kouryou’s sword, and returned their kijuu to them.
Are we going to at least make it past this first obstacle unscathed?
Kouryou finally allowed himself a quiet sigh of relief. The official leading the way stuck to the main thoroughfare and exited the gate area, at which point he urged Taiki and Kouryou to get on their kijuu. He followed alongside. A cordon of soldiers surrounded them, but in a manner more typical of guards escorting a nobleman.
Now that Kouryou could cool his head and think rationally, it all made sense. Only the word of a kirin could vouch for the Word of Heaven. The Word of Heaven being communicated through the kirin was itself a miracle, and nobody else had any way of discerning the authenticity of what the kirin said. All they could do was bow and acquiesce.
The Word of Heaven had declared Gyousou emperor. Kouryou never doubted that it must be so because that’s what the kirin said. It never occurred to him to doubt what he’d been told. The same must be true of everyone everywhere in this world. In that case, Taiki’s plan wasn’t half bad.
If Asen was the new emperor, he would have no cause to hurt Taiki. Far from it, he would make protecting Taiki a priority out of sheer self-interest. In short, Taiki had guaranteed his own safety.
As the Saiho, or rather, exercising his authority as the Province Lord of Zui, Taiki could then act on behalf of the people. Thinking about Taiki’s plan in these terms, Kouryou had to admit that the crazy scheme might actually work.
The problem was how far this particular lie would travel.
There was no fallback strategy here. The White Pheasant hadn’t sung. No auspicious omens had occurred. Asen would know full well that Gyousou hadn’t died. There should be no good reason to believe that a new emperor occupied the throne. No matter how many people they fooled at first, somewhere and at some point, the doubts and suspicions were bound to blossom.
Why hadn’t the White Pheasant fallen from its perch? Why hadn’t it uttered its portentous cry? Those questions alone exposed the fatal flaw in the plan. This house of cards was bound to blow over in the slightest breeze.
Wrestling with so many reasons to feel relieved and many more reasons for profound concern, Kouryou and Taiki continued north on the main thoroughfare that bisected the city from south to north. With so many eyes on them, Kouryou didn’t risk conversing with Taiki but focused his attention on the sights and sounds of Kouki.
Even inside the ramparts, the city looked the same. The luxurious avenues, the side streets lined with small shops and bustling with pedestrians. There was no sign of the impoverished people that lived in a place like Ten Shire. Nothing had changed since he left for Bun Province, not the streets he’d once walked or the stores he’d once frequented.
Or Hakkei Palace.
The Highland Gate—the entrance to the palace—hadn’t changed either. They walked through the gate and passed by the Hall of Government. From the Warehouse Gate to the Pheasant Gate, one gate after the next, they ascended the Imperial Palace, finally exiting the Zenith Gate just below the Sea of Clouds.
Here the government ministries and official residences spread out across the mountainside. Soldiers did not normally live in the Imperial Palace. The generals of the six divisions of the Imperial Army and their regimental commanders were exceptions. The generals lived above the Sea of Clouds. The regimental commanders had manors here in the Administrative Palace below the Sea of Clouds.
Kouryou had always thought it too much of a bother to live in the Administrative Palace. He did have the run of a small manse he rarely stayed in, though he visited his colleagues at their manors on a regular basis. As a result, he was well used to the sights and sounds of the Administrative Palace.
I wonder where are they and what are they doing now?
Kouryou doubted they were all safe and sound. The painful but undeniable realization was that he must have lost some of his friends and colleagues in the intervening six years.
The Road Gate stood to the north of the Administrative Palace, as if carved out of the cliffs. There they dismounted from their kijuu and were escorted inside the Gate Hall and shown to a room deep within the building. The official opened the door and ushered them into a small anteroom.
“Please wait here,” he said, and turned to leave.
Fixing a stare on the official, Kouryou stepped forward and held the door. He scanned the room and caught his breath. “What is the meaning of this?”
The windowless room was furnished with a single desk and two chairs. It rather resembled a subterranean prison cell.
The official looked over his shoulder as he backed out of the door.
“You’re tossing us into jail?” Kouryou demanded, his voice hoarse.
The official alone turned his frightened eyes toward Kouryou as he exited the room at practically a run. The door slammed shut. Kouryou didn’t hear the sound of a lock sliding into place but he sensed a sizable contingent of soldiers waiting just outside the room. They were being detained, no doubt about it.
Taiki turned to him, a puzzled expression on his face. “What is going on?”
Kouryou felt his stomach clench up. It looked like the powers that be hadn’t bought their tall tale after all.
Asen and his supporters should treat any pronouncement declaring Asen the new emperor as good news. Impossible that this was how they treated the kirin who came bearing such glad tidings. They should joyfully give him a warm reception at his living quarters in the Inner Palace, certainly not treat them like prisoners.
Kouryou could only conclude that Taiki’s lie had fallen flat.
Except he found it hard to believe they’d be brought all the way to the Road Gate with the sole intent of turning the tables at the last minute and executing them. Even so, soldiers could be massing outside the door, debating the right moment to rush in. In which case, Kouryou had to make sure that Taiki escaped. Alas, the cell had no windows and offered no other means of escape.
Our only chance is when the soldiers charge through the door.
The instant the door opened, they’d muscle the soldiers out of the way and run for it. They had to get through the anteroom door as well. If the anteroom door was secured and more soldiers were waiting for them in there, they wouldn’t be going anywhere.
Even if he cut them all down and they fled the Gate Hall, then what? They could hardly expect their kijuu to be waiting for them. Kouryou felt himself overcome by a cold wave of hopelessness.
He said under his breath, “Taiho, no matter what, stay behind me.”
Taiki answered with a smile. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. We are not necessarily in any more danger than we were before.”
“It’s only natural that they’d be more wary than usual. Some kid shows up out of the blue calling himself Taiki and they’re going to just take his word for it?”
Of course, Kouryou was about to say, before he clamped his mouth shut. And all the more so hearing him say so aloud. Of course. That was the reflexive impulse that immediately crossed his mind. Supposing that the kirin showed up and called himself Taiki, there should be no room for doubt.
Because whether he was or wasn’t the kirin should be clear as day. Because of his golden hair.
It was common sense to someone like Kouryou, who had been around since the dynasty of Emperor Kyou. The color of the kirin’s mane—that golden hair—was a symbol unique to the kirin. Even if a kirin went to the trouble of concealing his identity, he could prove who he was in an instant. And as far as that went, there’d be no need for him to “prove” anything.
However, Taiki was the Black Kirin. His cropped hair was black, a somewhat odd color in the Twelve Kingdoms, but still a world away from the golden mane of most kirin. Forthrightly stating who he was wouldn’t convince most people on the spot.
“It’s only natural that the authorities would take a closer look at such claims. At the same time, they hedged their bets and brought us this far into the Imperial Palace. Once we cross paths with a familiar face, all will become clear. Please relax.”
Taiki calmly sat down on the one of the chairs. Perhaps he really didn’t sense any danger in the air, for he did not appear particularly perturbed.
Kouryou said, “Did you anticipate that we would end up like this?”
“Getting locked in a room like this.”
Taiki responded with a small nod. “I considered the possibility of being arrested and detained. As things stand now, Asen is going to see me as the enemy, so it’s possible we may be forcibly separated, a possibility we must strenuously resist.” He added with a small smile, “Alas, to tell the truth, I have not been able to decide on the best way to do that, only that we’d be better off sticking together.”
“Yes,” Kouryou said with a nod of his own.
“Given that they didn’t tie us up or take your weapons and left us here together, I believe they bear us no malice.
Kouryou didn’t disagree with what Taiki was saying. He nodded again. At last he felt the tension draining from his body. Thinking about the situation in common sense terms, even if Asen concluded that Taiki’s statement about him being the new emperor was a complete fabrication, he had no need to deal with Taiki on the spot.
He would at least investigate the matter first. Realizing that Kouryou was Taiki’s only retainer, rather than kicking up a fuss, he’d settle the matter by quietly locking them away somewhere.
Like they were right now.