Hills of Silver Ruins

Chapter 25

5-5 As if eager to fill the emptiness left by all the fruitless days that preceded this one, Shouwa worked without pause, ordering Heichuu about as they refitted the bedrooms and turned the living room into a comfortable living space.

She finally retrieved the dirty dishes and said, “I shall have Heichuu-dono make sure this place gets a good cleaning. So much dust cannot be good for the Taiho’s health. After I return these to the cook, I will find more suitable clothing for the Taiho.” She paused. “Where were the Taiho’s items stored away? No, that hardly matters. None of those clothes would fit him now. I’ll see what I can put together.”

“You too,” she said to Kouryou. “When I get back, we’ll see if we can’t do something about your wardrobe.”

Leaving those words in her wake, she scurried out of the room, though not before pressing a bundle of dish towels into Heichuu’s hands. Eyes wide, he watched her leave, letting out a big sigh only after the door closed behind her with a soft click.

“Goodness gracious!” he exclaimed with a shake of his head that tossed his white hair back and forth, creating a scene no less comical.

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Kouryou chuckled. “A force of nature.”

“And one altogether needed,” Heichuu said. “I have hardly done my duty until today. Shouwa was certainly correct in her assessment.” He again bowed to Taiki. “I must apologize profusely for the many slights you have so unjustly incurred.”

“Oh, think nothing of it. No one could have expected you to act in any other way.”

“I am grateful for such kind words.”

Kouryou added, “It’d be only natural to be suspicious of some kid who showed up out of the blue calling himself the Taiho.”

“That is also deeply reassuring to hear. I know I am making excuses, but I did not previously have the pleasure of meeting the Taiho.”

“Was yours a recent appointment?”

“No. Previously—well, until quite recently, in fact—I was an undersecretary at large in the Interior Ministry. Quite out of the blue, I was made a valet and appointed the Taiho’s personal assistant.”

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“Who is currently in charge of the Ministry of Heaven?”

“His name is Risshou-sama. He served under the Minister of Spring so you likely never met him.”

“I’ve heard rumors that Kaihaku-sama went missing.” When Kouryou was dispatched to Bun Province, Kaihaku was the Minister of Heaven.

“Because of the shoku. His whereabouts are still unknown.”

“Oh,” Kouryou muttered.

This news left Taiki all the more dejected. “The shoku sure caused all sorts of damage.”

“Yes—well—what you’d expect—”

—what you’d expect from a shoku, Heichuu meant to say before his voice dropped to a whisper. Word around the palace was that, of the high officials in Gyousou’s inner circle, only Chou’un, the Minister of Spring, remained in the Imperial Court. Also that Eichuu, the Chousai, died from injuries suffered during the shoku. Kaihaku disappeared. Senkaku of the Ministry of Earth was executed by Asen.

Kaei, the Minister of Fall, and Haboku, the Minister of Summer, escaped the Imperial Palace to places unknown. Rousan of the Ministry of Winter was dismissed from his post.

“Is Rousan faring well?”

“I think so. A person in my position doesn’t know a good deal of such goings-on. At the very least, I’ve heard nothing to suggested he was executed or any rumors that he fled the palace.”

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“Rumors, eh?” Kouryou said.

“Ah, yes. The fact of the matter is, I can’t say anything definitive about the inner workings of the palace these days. All I know for certain is what goes on around me. Everything else is based on hearsay.”

“In other words, the flow of information is being blocked somewhere along the line?”

Heichuu craned his head to the side. “I don’t get the feeling that anybody is actively intervening to stop that knowledge from getting out. If I had to describe what’s going on, I’d say the information gets—well—scattered.

“Scattered?” Kouryou asked.

Heichuu again craned his head to the side and thought about it but couldn’t find the right words to articulate that feeling.

As a government worker, Heichuu rose through the ranks during the final years of Emperor Kyou’s reign. He started as an executive assistant in the upper echelons of the bureaucracy and steadily added to his resume. At the time, he considered his portfolio the kingdom itself. Cracks were already showing in the dynasty of Emperor Kyou. Many worried that the Imperial Court was beginning to list.

Despite those conditions, Heichuu felt a firm sense of belonging. He was a subject of the kingdom, a part of the whole. Falling behind in his work would only shift the burden to his coworkers and frustrate his superiors, the trouble then spilling over to other departments. There was a clear cause and effect. He knew what he was doing and why.

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And if he didn’t know why, he could always find someone who did. He understood his place and his purpose in the whole that was the Kingdom of Tai.

That didn’t change during the waning days of Emperor Kyou’s dynasty or during the era of the empty throne. No matter how distorted in outward appearance, the kingdom was there and he knew his place in it. He grasped how his work contributed to the governance of the kingdom. If not, he could always come up with a plausible explanation.

He observed his colleagues getting on with their jobs and their superiors passing the results of their work up the chain of command. He had long figured out how information moved from the bottom to the top in an organization. He was no less familiar with the people who made it happen. Even without every seeing them or meeting them in person, based on his own eyes and ears and from the grapevine, he knew somebody was there and he had a good idea what they were doing.

In short, he never lost that feeling of people being behind the scenes and making sure the wheels of government kept turning.

That was the case at first during the Asen’s reign. Despite the Imperial Court being in disarray, with a complete lack of coordinated efforts here and inexplicable delays there, such that there seemed no way to surmount the problems they faced, everything still made sense.

However, little by little, that was no longer true.

Perhaps it started with the high officials injured and killed by the shoku. And then in the process of seizing control of the Imperial Court, Asen dismissed and reassigned many senior officials or had them executed. Many more government workers were replaced or simply disappeared, so often that Heichuu had no time to familiarize himself with their names or faces or dispositions.

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The government of the Kingdom of Tai was incomprehensible in such a state. Except the same had also been true during the twilight of Emperor Kyou’s dynasty and the era of the empty throne, and even soon after Gyousou’s enthronement.

But those periods hardly resembled the current state of affairs. When a senior position opened up in a ministry or department, no one knew who would fill it. When it was filled, no one knew who that person was, what they did, or if they even existed. Nothing like this had happened before.

Whether Asen was a pretender or the emperor pro tempore, as the leader of the Imperial Court, he was nowhere to be seen. They at least knew who was ostensibly in charge of the Rikkan. Many more new faces were complete strangers. All anybody could say for certain was that a person was on the premises. No one knew what they did, what they intended to do, or in what direction they intended to move the kingdom. A complete mystery.

The organizational outlook had grown murky and incomprehensible, until nothing was clear and nothing made sense—as if they’d been swallowed up by a thick fog.

They at least knew that Asen, a former general of the Palace Guard, occupied the throne. When the shoku occurred, throwing the Imperial Court into chaos, they knew he had gone to great lengths to reassert control. They knew the means by which he seized an Imperial Court that had lost its emperor. They knew how he removed Gyousou’s subordinates and replaced them with personnel he found more compliant, while pushing out anyone who might stand against him.

But in the process, something else began to change. The Ministry of Heaven, for example, in which Heichuu served. During Gyousou’s reign, Kaihaku was the Taisai, the Minister of Heaven. Kaihaku went missing in the aftermath of the shoku. The Assistant Taisai filled the post.

The reasonable expectation was that the Assistant Taisai would reorganize the Imperial Palace according to Asen’s plans. But at some point, he simply disappeared. His instructions to the Rikkan grew further and further apart, and then without so much as a rumor about his departure, he wasn’t there anymore.

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After that, Risshou was appointed Taisai. Risshou previously worked as an assistant in the Ministry of Spring. The promotion made everyone blink. Even as an official in the imperial bureaucracy, Risshou came from the lowest ranks of the civil service. No one imagined him as one the ministerial heads of the Rikkan. The promotion defied common sense.

No one knew a thing about his career, about his accomplishments, or, at the very least, what kind of person he was. Everyone in Heichuu’s circle drew a blank. In any case, the first question on their mind was whether “Minister of Spring” referred to Chou’un, the Minister of Spring under Gyousou, or the current Minister of Spring.

Then there was the mystery of what Risshou did every day. The ministerial reorganization already underway was left as is. The shake-up left many positions vacant. Heichuu’s superiors had gaps in their ranks. And yet job assignments suddenly showed up out of the blue. From someplace above his pay grade, instructions came down to do this or that, with no indication of their origins or intentions.

Asking for clarifications only puzzled the person delivering the orders. No sooner did he do as he was told and get to work but a set of contradictory directives came down. These too were delivered on behalf of parties unknown and for reasons nobody knew, leaving Heichuu with no idea of which of the conflicting assignments to prioritize. Inquiries produced answers that in no way reconciled the problem. Repeated inquiries produced only silence.

Not that the original directives were withdrawn, just that whoever was sending them stopped communicating. Heichuu and his colleagues had no choice but to do as they were told.

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They reasoned a power struggle was underway high in the bureaucracy and concluded that whatever side shut up first lost the argument. But that was mere conjecture. In any event, they learned not to be surprised when the orders to do a particular thing came at longer and longer intervals. And then, with no rush to competition and no one taking charge of the work done so far, the whole project was often simply tabled.

“That is pretty much the pattern,” Heichuu said. “My fellow colleagues and I haven’t the slightest idea what is going on.”

This latest incident involving Taiki and Kouryou proved to be no exception. Heichuu was an administrative official at large in the Interior Ministry. His job involved keeping the administrative laws and the institutions that managed the civil service in working order. And then he was abruptly made a valet. No one took credit for the appointment and no reason was given.

One day he was summoned by the Minister of Internal Affairs, who was responsible for managing the personal lives of the Emperor and Taiho, and told that, as a valet, he was now to look after this person calling himself the Taiho.

For Heichuu, it was a demotion from his position as an administrative official. He must have messed up somewhere to get shuffled out of his post, but if so, no one told him, leaving him in the dark as to why he ended up a valet. He was only told to get the job done, with no indication of how he was supposed to get the job done or who could tell him.

He asked his new direct supervisor, the emperor’s head butler, but the head butler had no idea that Heichuu had been appointed a valet. His only question to Heichuu was, “Who are you again?”

After that, word must have come down from above, and then the head butler’s only advice was, “Do as you see fit.” There was a person calling himself the Taiho waiting at the Road Gate. “See that he’s taken care of. The rest is up to you.”

That was the sum total of Heichuu’s job description.

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So he had to prepare a place for them to stay. When he proposed the Taiho’s residential estate in the Imperial Palace, he was hastily informed that it was far too soon to allow them access to the Inner Court.

“Then where?” he inquired. “What place would be appropriate to his status? How long could he be expected to stay? What kind of reception should he be given?”

Heichuu received a satisfactory answer to only the first question. But when he approached the property manager for the key, the manager hadn’t heard about any such goings-on. Heichuu got similar responses when it came to catering meals and arranging for the bedding and practically everything else.

Finally, Heichuu met separately with the supervising party in each case, presented his credentials, introduced himself, and explained the situation, basically starting the whole process over from the beginning each time.

“That is how things have gone on all along. That’s how we end up doing what our betters tell us to do. Everything else we figure out on our own. We have no other choice. I imagine it’s equally true of the people handing down the orders. Maybe every civil servant in the imperial bureaucracy is in the same situation that we are.”

Again, Heichuu said it was like an impenetrable fog had enveloped the Imperial Palace. He could clearly make out his own immediate surroundings, but expand the view and objects farther away grew vague and indistinct before disappearing from view.

Is this how a kingdom loses its way? Kouryou asked himself as he listened to Heichuu. He could only answer the question in the affirmative. This was why the kingdom could do nothing for the people. The kingdom itself was losing the very shape and form and substance that made it a kingdom.

“I wonder what Asen is up to?” Kouryou asked this question aloud.

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Heichuu took the query as addressed to him. “These days, it seems Asen-sama has holed himself up in the Imperial Palace and rarely shows his face in public.”

“He doesn’t appear in public?”

“That’s right. I’ve heard that anything having to do with the kingdom is handled entirely by Chou’un-sama and his faction. Asen-sama left everything up to him and hunkered down in his quarters. But even more curious than that—”

Heichuu lowered his voice to a loud whisper. “Rumors say that Asen shutting himself away like this has given Chou’un-sama a free rein and he is taking every advantage. Frankly, getting appointed a valet piqued my interest in palace politics and I’ve been asking around ever since. As best I can tell, Asen-sama hasn’t the slightest idea that the Taiho is on the premises.”

“Chou’un is covering it up?”

“That’s one possibility. If not Chou’un-sama, then somebody else with vested interests. People in my position have no way of knowing which.” Heichuu paused and said, again in hushed tones, “For some time now, I have been getting a strange feeling about this Imperial Court. Despite the number of civil servants working here, it often feels like a deserted ruin.”

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Heichuu himself was pleased to hear the news that Asen was the new emperor, believing that now law and order would finally be restored to Tai. If the reign of a pretender, as it had come to be known, became a true and proper imperial dynasty, Heichuu would happily be a part of it. But such a celebratory mood was nowhere to be found in the Imperial Palace.

“Like it never happened. Still as death. No, like everybody is holding their breath. Like they are all nervously waiting for the next shoe to drop.”

With that, as if suddenly realizing what he was saying out loud, Heichuu snapped his mouth shut. He said apologetically, “Forgive me. I have gone on much too long. I fear I have been speaking out of turn. Please forget everything I said.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Kouryou said. “We didn’t hear a thing.”

Heichuu bowed his head in relief, then in a rushed manner began haphazardly wiping down the furniture with the bundle of dish towels he was holding. Kouryou watched him for a minute, then cast a glance at Taiki. He didn’t say anything but Taiki caught the gist and nodded.

News of Taiki’s presence hadn’t reached Asen. Hard to believe that was really true. But it meant Asen didn’t know that Taiki had pronounced him the emperor. Maybe Chou’un was suppressing the information. If so, Chou’un might have his reasons of his own to not celebrate Asen being named the new emperor.

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As Kouryou turned this new information over in his mind, Shouwa was heading deeper into the Imperial Palace. Now shouldering her long-sought commission, she hurried higher in the heavens toward the Inner Court. Passing through a tower that continued onto the Outer Court, she turned down the corridor and headed east. With a glance at the gate leading to the Imperial Court, she scurried to the executive offices of the Rikkan.

At the gate leading to the buildings that housed the Ministry of Heaven, she paused and called out to the guard, “It is Shouwa. Please let Risshou-sama know I am here.”

One of Risshou’s assistants soon appeared and accompanied Shouwa to the main building. Waiting there was a man in his fifties, a man with a glint of steel in his eyes. This was the man who had rescued Shouwa from her maidservant duties and restored her to her former position of lady-in-waiting.

Shouwa knelt before him. “Without a doubt, the young man is the Taiho.”

“Without a doubt, you say?”

“Yes,” Shouwa said with a bob of her head.

The young man was indeed the master she once served. Though not a member of his personal retinue, she had been at his side on a daily basis, speaking to him and being spoken to in turn. He had grown up since then but she was certain he was Taiki.

Risshou nodded vigorously. “Well done. Please continue to serve him as you did before.”

“The Taiho’s current accommodations leave much to be desired.”

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“I will leave all such matters up to you. Whatever personnel or material goods you need will be made available at your discretion.”

“Yes,” Shouwa said, bowing low to the floor.

“See to it that he wants for nothing. And also—”

Shouwa nodded. “I will make sure to keep you informed of anything I might see or hear.”

The man responded with a satisfied smile.

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