he winds buffeting Hakkei Palace grew colder day by day. Frost covered the crowns of the roofs in the morning, even the buildings located near the Sea of Clouds. Snow already blanketed the peaks of the mountains to the north.
Under house arrest, Kouryou and Taiki spent their days in idleness. They hadn’t been formally questioned once during this time. Far from it, no one in authority had visited Taiki. Asen’s absence was not that surprising, but none of the high officials, starting with Chou’un, had shown up at their door to make any demands of them whatsoever.
What is the meaning of this? Kouryou asked himself.
Taiki’s typically unflappable countenance had also grown increasingly cloudy. As far as Kouryou could tell, the whole plan had run aground, a ship foundering on the reefs. On top of that, witnessing Hakkei Palace from the inside provided a perspective unlike anything Kouryou and Taiki had imagined.
Until now, Kouryou pictured Asen as he would any usurper—jealously hoarding his stolen authority, running the government like his personal plaything. Accordingly, one look at Asen’s visage and the Rikkan turned its backs on the people out of pure self-preservation. People of principle who tried to correct the downward course were promised the torments of the world below for their efforts and so kept their counsel to themselves.
That’s what Kouryou thought he would find within the confines of Hakkei Palace. But what Asen’s Imperial Court actually revealed defied all of those expectations.
To start with, Asen was nowhere to be seen. Even taking into account the stories related by Heichuu and Shouwa, Kouryou barely felt his presence. Though Asen occupied the throne, he rarely emerged from the Rokushin, the manor that housed the emperor’s living quarters deep within the Imperial Palace. Kouryou gathered that Asen didn’t show up for Privy Council meetings and made no public pronouncements or decrees.
Perhaps—Kouryou voiced the thought. “Maybe somebody already got to Asen and assassinated him.”
Brushing out Taiki’s hair, Shouwa’s hands paused. “Oh, nonsense,” she said, reacting to Kouryou’s surmise with a startled expression. “That’s the last thing I would expect.”
Since Shouwa had been assigned to be their attendant, life inside their jail had markedly improved. She moved into one room of their little prison and worked with barely a rest, overlooking nothing deserving of her attention, waking every morning to stoke the fire and warm the living room, heat the water, and tidy up. After which she prepared Taiki’s wardrobe for the day.
This morning as well, she helped him dress—refusing to take seriously his protestations that he could do so himself—and now was giving him a trim.
After telling Taiki, “Well, then, that should be fine,” she said, “I believe we can safely assume he is in good health precisely because we see him so rarely these days.”
But someone had to show up for work in order to keep the kingdom running. That was the job of Chou’un, the Chousai, and the six ministerial heads of the Rikkan. The ministers were usually close associates of the Chousai, but it would be no exaggeration to say that Chou’un ruled Tai. And yet no one called Chou’un a corrupt or conniving official.
During the dynasty of Emperor Kyou, Chou’un had been a vice-minister in the Ministry of Spring.
“If memory serves, he became a vice-minister with the strong support of the Minister of Religious Affairs.”
“I heard the same. It’s not that he curried favor with Emperor Kyou. He steadily accumulated a long string of accomplishments and earned a trusted reputation.”
Kouryou nodded. When it came to the rites and rituals, Chou’un’s knowledge was said to be without equal. The twilight of Emperor Kyou’s reign saw the proliferation of irresponsible officials who swaggered through the halls of the Imperial Palace. He wasn’t one of them. Kouryou recalled hearsay and chatter that described him as a shrewd and capable official. Gyousou likely heard it too, and so chose him to head the Ministry of Spring.
“I’ve heard nothing to suggest that he conducted his affairs in a manner that could be described as cruel or coldhearted. People like me are not in the position to judge those who live above the Sea of Clouds, but no word has reached my ears that would lead me to conclude he is a dissolute official who would cavalierly toss the kingdom into turmoil.”
“Then how did Tai come to be in its current condition?” Kouryou wondered aloud.
Shouwa had no answer. Based on what they’d learned from Heichuu and Shouwa, the chaos gripping the kingdom sprang less than any one person’s actions, but was rather the consequence of nobody doing anything to stop it. That seemed a better description of the actual conditions. Scattered, was the word Heichuu used. The Imperial Court was crumbling and the kingdom was losing its form.
“Either way, it’s all very strange,” Taiki broke in. “Why do you suppose Asen doesn’t show himself in public?”
“It definitely is,” Kouryou agreed with a nod. He heard Heichuu’s voice from the other side of the door. Their valet had arrived with breakfast. Kouryou stepped to the entranceway. As always, Heichuu was accompanied by several lower-ranked attendants bearing the dishes.
“Sorry for the wait,” Heichuu said with an apologetic bow.
The attendants stepped past him, carrying the meal into the main room. Observing them, Kouryou drew his brows. One of the attendants stood apart from the rest, a blank look on his face. His clothing and the badge affixed to his waist told Kouryou he also belonged to the Ministry of Heaven. Yet he showed no inclination to help. He wasn’t even paying attention to his colleagues, only staring off into space.
Kouryou wasn’t the only one was found this behavior odd. Heichuu and the rest of the attendants cast unsettled glances in his direction.
Who is this guy?
And what was he doing here? Kouryou caught Heichuu eye with an inquiring look. Heichuu shook his head. He didn’t know either. Whatever orders sent the man there with them came from a separate chain of command.
Having done their duty, the attendants left the room. With an equivocal smile, Heichuu said to Taiki, “
“Pardon the delay, but please—”
That was when the unidentified civil servant, standing there like a statue, suddenly sprang to life. He strode up to Taiki and knelt before him with an almost mechanical formality.
“You have been summoned by His Highness.”
Kouryou started but tightened his lips before the exclamation could escape his mouth. His Highness could only mean Asen. The wheels had finally started to turn.
“I am to escort the Taiho to the Naiden in the Inner Palace.”
“Did this request come from Asen himself?” Kouryou asked.
The emissary from the Ministry of Heaven remained impassive and did not answer or even look at him.
Kouryou continued regardless. “We should first want to know the purpose of this meeting.”
His repeated demands prompted no answer. After stating that an escort would be arriving momentarily, the emissary got to his feet and left the room, his face as blank as when he entered.
“Momentarily!” Shouwa exclaimed in a small voice and cast her eyes around the room. Her thoughts were obvious—if Taiki was going to meet with Asen, then he should be dressed accordingly, and the necessary preparation must be made at once.
Heichuu was no less flustered. Apparently, the Ministry of Heaven hadn’t informed him of this official’s errand either.
An entirely different question crossed Kouryou’s mind. He said to Heichuu, “Who was that emissary?”
“Hmm,” was Heichuu’s first response. He tilted his head to the side and said, “A civil servant in the Ministry of Heaven attached to the Rokushin, though I couldn’t tell you his name.”
Kouryou wasn’t particularly interested in the man’s name. As a matter of fact, he didn’t have a good idea right then what question to ask or how to ask it. The man’s presence just felt off. His eyes, to start with. It was he was trying to focus on something that wasn’t there, like he was intoxicated. If the eyes were the windows to the soul, these windows weren’t closed. They were wide open and there was nothing inside to see.
His face expressionless, his movements mechanical, and his intonation so flat that not even his words seemed a product of his own will.
“More like a windup doll,” Kouryou muttered.
“Ah, Heichuu nodded. “I get the same feeling from most of the civil servants who serve in the Rokushin.”
“From most of them?”
“Yes.” Heichuu glanced at Shouwa, who bobbed her head in agreement. An unsettled look crossed her face, as if recalling an unpleasant sensation.
“Asen surrounded himself with people like that? What are we talking about here anyway?”
Heichuu shook his head. “I haven’t the slightest idea. At some point, we started seeing them here and there. You’d catch one shuffling by out of the corner of your eyes and feel a shiver down your spine, and then take another look and he’d be gone.”
“Were they like this from the start?”
“No,” Heichuu said. He lowered his voice. “According to my colleagues, they succumbed to the condition. Like falling ill, they lost their drive and eventually ended up like that.”
The words “falling ill” struck Kouryou as particularly alarming.
“During this time, a once normal person talks less and less, grows more and more enervated. You might say the spirit slows down, like they’re literally losing heart. Their responses grow dull. Ask how they’re doing and they say they’re fine. Then it gets worse and they stop answering altogether. They stagger around with blank faces. After that, you stop seeing them at all.”
“They end up in the Rokushin?”
“So it would appear. Once they go missing, their names disappear from the register at their duty station. Ask around about where they went and nobody can give you an answer. Then come the rumors that they were seen in the Rokushin. One way or another, their job posting was changed and they were assigned to the Rokushin under the auspices of the Ministry of Heaven.”
“Completely unrelated to their previous duty station?”
“Yes. An acquaintance of mine in the Ministry of Fall related this to me. One of his colleagues was assigned to the same duty station as himself. He came down with the condition and disappeared. But there have been more dramatic changes. A great many of them were people dissatisfied with Asen-sama’s reign. Openly critical until the day before, and then a day later they succumbed. They didn’t disappear but stayed on at their posts like nothing had happened.”
“These are unsettling stories, to say the least.”
“Yes,” Heichuu agreed. He drew closer and said, “They’ve lost their souls.”
Kouryou furrowed his brows and turned to face him.
“At least, that is the best description we’ve come up with.”
Kouryou groaned. The expression “lost their souls” fit all too perfectly. They’d turned into empty vessels, leaving only the human husk behind.
And that’s who Asen has surrounded himself with?
Whether she took any note of their brooding looks or not, Shouwa ran out of the room mumbling to herself about their attire.
As promised, the emissary showed up again not long after that. Kouryou accompanied Taiki as if his presence was presumed, and nobody objected. Leaving a worried-looking Heichuu and Shouwa behind in the room, with the emotionless civil servant in the lead, Kouryou and Taiki left their prison for the first time in many days.
Though a cold wind blew across the roadway, the brisk breeze seemed to make taking each breath all the easier. Life in that makeshift jail cell was far more constricting that he had realized.
Following the road, Kouryou and Taiki left through the Road Gate, an enormous structure carved into the bare white rock. A large white staircase rose upwards from the gate. These stairs were bespelled in such a way that they covered the remaining distance to the Sea of Clouds almost at once.
The long flight of steps was not at all commensurate with the distance traveled, and yet having surmounted them, they found themselves above the Sea of Clouds. The cold wind now brought with it the smell of the sea. The faint sound of waves echoed beneath the bright dome of an expansive sky.
They left the open gate. Taking in the scene before them, Kouryou gaped in surprise. A gate towered above the plaza leading to the Outer Palace. To the right and left of the gate, more buildings extended east and west. Soaring turrets looked down from the four corners of the plaza.
And all of them everywhere were cracked like eggshells, the stone walls laced with fissures, the plaster shattered and falling to pieces. The eaves of the great roofs sagged, spilling the corner tiles to the ground.
“What the hell?” Kouryou blurted out. The emissary leading them said nothing.
The only comparison that sprang to mind was the aftermath of a war. Even the Imperial Palace had not escaped unscathed. A shoku that should never occur above the Sea of Clouds had struck here.
Kouryou glanced at Taiki. He as well looked around in stark surprise.
The damaged extended to buildings well beyond the walls. There were signs of repairs, with scaffolding covering some of the structures. But the great majority had been abandoned in their damaged state.
Gawking at the sights around them, they passed through the Outer Palace. The surrounding buildings here did not appear damaged, but hardly any civil servants busied about the grounds. Those who occasionally passed by did so with heads slumped to their chests, as if filled with a silent dread, heads that if raised would undoubtedly reveal vacant eyes and faces devoid of expression as they drifted along.
What is all this? Something was very wrong. What could possible account for all this strangeness?
That sense of wrongness surely arose from the profound differences with the city of Kouki, its sights and sounds perfectly preserved in his memories. So unchanged he never would have otherwise guessed the kingdom had lost its rightful emperor and was being ruled by a pretender.
In stark contrast, what could account for the profound differences here in the Enchou, which encompassed the residences of the Inner Palace and the Imperial Court of the Outer Palace? He knew a meishoku had occurred and heard that it caused an enormous amount of damaged. However, six years had passed. The ragged appearance of the structures around him made it clear that much of the damage was simply being ignored.
To be sure, only so much could be accomplished in only six years. What struck him as particularly strange wasn’t that so much of the Imperial Palace hadn’t been repaired, but the complete lack of an inclination to do so. Aside from sweeping up the rubble, the fallen roof tiles hadn’t been replaced. Cracked walls and the sunken footings were left as is.
At least the rubble had been removed. And yet even minor repairs went unaddressed. Such was the sense of strangeness that surrounded the Imperial Palace. Perhaps strangest of all, here he was with Taiki and a single emissary from the Ministry of Heaven. There were only a few civil servants in the vicinity, but none of them stopped as they passed, and none of them bowed. They might not even know who he was.
It was like a haunted manor in a ghost story. Anything that was in order was lacking in vitality. Deathly still, gripped by gloom and melancholy.
A voice suddenly rang out. “What is going on!”
Sounding shockingly alive in the stagnant air, the shout communicated anger and astonishment. Surprise warred with relief as Kouryou whirled around. He found himself confronted by a government minister. The man’s face was red with indignation, his shoulders heaved.
Kouryou was pretty sure he recognized the man. Chou’un, the current Chousai.
“Unbelievable! The Taiho—”
Like Chou’un himself, his entourage appeared animated and alive. They all turned their attention to Taiki, leaving Kouryou with the impression that Taiki was a stranger to them too.
Chou’un turned to one of his subordinates. “Who arranged this meeting with the Taiho?” he demanded in a hoarse voice. “And on whose authority was he removed from his quarters? You must immediately—”
The civil servant he’d addressed replied in a subdued voice, “His Highness issued the summons.”
Chou’un’s features twisted like he’d swallowed a mouthful bitter tea. In any other situation, Kouryou would have shaken his head in disbelief.
Without a doubt, Asen’s Imperial Court does not speak with a single voice.
“Why—” Chou’un started to say, then closed his mouth and started again. “I shall go with you.”
“The presence of the Chousai was not requested,” the emissary stated in a flat and emotionless tone.
Chou’un glared at him. “I cannot condone the taking of such liberties. But if a summons was handed down, we have no choice. I shall accompany you regardless.”