5-6 In reality, rumors that Taiki had appeared in Hakkei Palace and declared Asen the new emperor shot through the Imperial Palace like a bolt of lightning.
“Is he really the Taiho?” came the inevitable question.
Assurances that he was only further muddied the waters.
“The Taiho was only a child when he last occupied Hakkei Palace. Would anybody here recognize him as an adult?”
“Whether they do or not, it’s not likely that somebody would go around pretending to be the kirin.”
Under normal circumstances, there would be no room for doubt. The kirin’s golden hair settled the issue. Except the current kirin of the Tai was a Black Kirin.
The mention of that fact was met with silence. Once hair color was removed as the determining factor, how could a person calling himself Taiki prove he was Taiki?
“Even if he grew up, his features shouldn’t have changed that much.”
True enough, but they might also have changed quite a bit in the meantime. Either way, the only way to settle the issue would be to talk to somebody who knew him back then. And that pretty much limited any trustworthy eyewitnesses to people who lived above the Sea of Clouds.
The news raced from the foot of Ryou’un Mountain, up through the Road Gate, and right to the summit.
“What about one of the civil servants in the Ministry of Heaven? Or the Rikkan of Zui Province?”
“Nonsense!” said a man who once worked in the Ministry of Heaven. “It’s not like we ever had the chance to give him a good hard look. In normal circumstances, you’re simply grateful to be in the presence of people like that. Staring at them would be height of disrespect.”
What it usually came down to was, if they did find themselves in the presence of Taiki, they’d be looking at the floor in a deep bow.
“Frankly, you’d have an easier time discriminating between two peas in a pod than you would picking the grown Taiki out of a crowd.”
“I do have a vague recollection of his face, but all I could tell you today is that he was young.”
“Perhaps the only person who would recognize the grown Taiho is Gyousou-sama.”
Except Gyousou wasn’t there.
“Or the chief cabinet secretary of Zui Province or regimental commander Risai-sama.”
“What about the previous head of the Rikkan?”
The furor reached every corner of the Imperial Palace.
“They’ve all died or disappeared. The only ones left—” In the office of the Chousai, the lowly civil servant bowed low. “The only ones left are Rousai-sama, once the Minister of Winter. And the Chousai, who was the Minister of Spring.”
The current Chousai, Chou’un, had indeed once been the Daisouhaku of the Ministry of Spring. He groaned aloud. “You’re hoping I would recognize him now?”
Though Chou’un had served as Minister of Spring, he wasn’t a member of Gyousou’s personal retinue and thus had never formed the kind of relationship with Taiki that might have made them comfortable acquaintances. Basically, he only saw Taiki during Privy Council meetings and then only looking up at him on the dais. He could count on the fingers of one hand the times they had met face to face and exchanged words. And since he was mostly bowing at those times as well, he had formed no strong impressions of his countenance.
“Now, Rousai or Ganchou of the Palace Guard—”
As part of Gyousou’s inner circle, they should be on more familiar terms with Taiki. The problem was, that wasn’t the real problem.
“Far more important than examining the Taiho’s bona fides is whether Asen-sama is truly the new emperor.”
“A hard question to avoid.”
“You do not think it likely?”
Chou’un had gathered his closest aides together in the office of the Chousai. Still, nobody dared answer the question he posed.
“Or perhaps—” Another thought occurred to him. “This means that Gyousou is dead?”
“Impossible!” chorused the voices around him.
Chou’un asked them in turn, “What of the White Pheasant?”
If Gyousou died, then the White Pheasant would fall dead as well. No such news had arrived thus far, though nobody observed the White Pheasant on a daily basis. It was entirely possible that at some point it had uttered the Last Cry.
“We’ll confirm this right away,” said one of his assistants, jumping to his feet.
He ran out of the room and with all due haste dispatched a messenger to the West Palace to make the confirmation. The office of the Praetorian Guard forwarded the request to the Minister of the Two Cries, who hurried over to the Palace of the Two Cries.
Nothing now occupied the silver branch where the white bird once made its perch. Rather, at the base of the tree was a small mound from which protruded a section of bamboo. The Minister of the Two Cries crouched down and brought his ear up next to the bamboo. One end of the bamboo branch was embedded in a large vase buried deep in the earth. Listening more closely, he could hear the rustling sound of the bird moving around in the vase.
“The White Pheasant is not dead,” he reported.
This news left Chou’un and his assistants all the more confused.
“That being the case, the Divine Will stands as is in regards to the emperor.”
“Can we go so far as to say the Taiho lied?”
“What is the Taiho up to then?”
“I cannot believe the kirin would engage in any sort of political machinations.”
“Does it mean somebody is using the Taiho, perhaps even against his will?”
“Somebody behind the scenes?”
Listening to the back and forth, Chou’un pondered the possibilities. Either unknown forces were pulling Taiki’s strings or Taiki himself was orchestrating all this confusion. If so, what was he trying to accomplish? Why go to such lengths and risk kicking the hornet’s nest?
“More importantly, shouldn’t we establish the bona fides of this person who calls himself the Taiho?”
“What about Asen-sama?”
“Not a chance,” Chou’un flatly stated. “Let’s say they happened to cross paths and something happened to Asen, then what? Anything of the sort would constitute serious business indeed. Someone else should established his identity. Like the Minister of Heaven.”
Chou’un glanced at Risshou, the Minister of Heaven.
“I was only recently appointed to the position and am not in the position to make such a determination. However, there are those who once served alongside the Taiho. The Zui Province Minister of Heaven might have been the closest to him. But the Taiho was usually in the company of Gyousou. In that case, we’d want to look for a civil servant in the Ministry of Heaven who served on Gyousou’s domestic staff and helped run the household.”
In the end, Chou’un ordered that such a civil servant be found. The result of the search was Shouwa.
And Shouwa positively identified Taiki as the kirin of Tai.
“How could the kirin ever act against the interests of the emperor?” objected many. “Supposing the hands of Providence still rest upon Gyousou’s shoulders, it does not stand to reason that the Taiho should repudiate the Divine Will.”
“Yes, there is that.”
“And if Gyousou truly has not died, does it not follow that, for reasons unknown, some alteration has been made to the Divine Will?”
Chou’un thought it over. “Leaving us again with the problem of whether or not to inform Asen-sama.”
Chou’un still hadn’t dared to report any of this to Asen. None of the bureaucrats on the premises had Asen’s ear. Their subordinates were also ordered to stay mum on the subject, though the subject was so incendiary that putting a halt to the rumors proved impossible. But call it good luck or bad, aside from ordering them around, Asen did not interact with the civil servants that attended to him. They were unlikely to communicate to him whatever rumors caught their attention.
The Minister of Earth spoke up. “The Taiho may have a scheme up his sleeves. The Taiho—or more likely, someone using the Taiho—is attempting to bring the fight to Asen-sama in person. Carelessly allowing them to meet would play right into their hands. We must take care not to become unwitting partners in such a conspiracy. Until we know the true intentions of the Taiho, he should be kept at a distance.”
If Asen became aware of these disquieting events, he might request an audience with the Taiho. The situation demanded a closer look before that could be allowed to occur.
“In any case, we should be on the alert for any suspicious behavior among Gyousou’s followers. Moreover, as we have found no comparable examples in the historical accounts, including those of other kingdoms, that as well warrants the need for a thorough investigation. Until the actual designs of the Taiho are determined, none of this should be communicated to Asen-sama.”
Everyone in attendance nodded in agreement.