7-2 With the emissary from the Ministry of Heaven leading the way, Kouryou, Taiki, and Chou’un proceeded deeper into the Imperial Palace. Chou’un’s entourage trailed after them, making no attempt to hide the worried looks on their faces.
Waiting for them in the Naiden, the great hall where the emperor conferred with his ministers and handled the affairs of state, was Asen himself. Or so they assumed. With the bamboo blinds lowered around the throne, all they could see was a figure sitting on the throne. It was impossible to make out any distinct features. Kouryou thought that unfortunate. He wanted to see the look on the traitor’s face when he confronted Taiki.
With mechanical movements, the emissary faced the throne and bowed. “I brought him,” he said, and slipped away like a fleeting ghost.
Taiki stood there and peered at the figure behind the screen. On either side of him, Chou’un and the others knelt on the floor. Taiki showed no inclination to follow suit. Following his lead, Kouryou didn’t either.
Taiki said nothing, only looked at the throne. No orders or instructions came from within the bamboo blinds. Under normal circumstances, a court official would direct the unfolding events. For whatever reason, Asen must have dismissed such intermediaries. A frigid silence flowed through the building.
The total lack of action only heightened Kouryou’s suspicions and was raising his hackles as well when a voice finally emerged from the behind the blinds.
“Why did you return?” The question was posed so calmly as to sound devoid of emotion.
“I came in search of the emperor’s aura,” Taiki answered, no less calm and composed.
“The words mean what they mean. I sensed the aura of an emperor within these walls. So here I came. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“By which you mean me? What makes you think so?”
“Because that is what I felt. That is the only answer I can offer.”
Taiki spoke so dispassionately that Kouryou had to wonder whether such statements, made with such serenity and lacking any kind of zeal, would deceive Asen.
It wasn’t only Taiki’s preternatural composure that puzzled Kouryou. Something about him had changed. Kouryou felt no emotion in the air. Taiki faced Asen head on without a hint of timidity or defiance. Indifference was the strongest impression Kouryou came away with at that moment.
“Such an explanation will not suffice!” Chou’un interrupted in a ragged voice. “Explain yourself in terms that Asen-sama can comprehend!”
Taiki cast an impassive glance at Chou’un. He took a long breath. “I do not understand myself. When I returned from Hourai, I sensed the emperor’s aura nowhere. That is how weak it was. I even thought that perhaps Gyousou-sama had passed away during my absence. But I could not say that for certain.”
Taiki craned his head to one side. “To tell the truth, I am not sure I could tell if the emperor had died. I have no idea what form such knowledge would take. I’ve never had an emperor die on me, you see.”
He not only lacked the experience, he had no one now who could explain the particulars to him.
“However, I do have a very good idea what the aura of an emperor feels like. I know Gyousou-sama’s aura first hand. Without a doubt. And yet I could not detect that aura.”
Taiki again explained in plainly-stated terms that he could not clearly say whether that aura existed or even where it might be found. However—
“The other day, quite unexpectedly, I distinctly felt an imperial aura and confirmed that it was here. For a moment, I thought I might be Gyousou-sama himself. Except it didn’t feel quite right. Something about it was different. If I had to describe it, I would say the color was different. Whoever it was, it wasn’t Gyousou-sama. Moreover, it came from Kouki. Fully knowing the risks that lay in store, I approached the city. When Kouki came into view, I knew for certain that the aura of the emperor emanated from within the Imperial Palace. At the same time, I attached a memory to that feeling.”
Taiki directed his cool gaze at the throne. “That memory was of you.”
In a cool monotone he then uttered words that made Kouryou’s blood run cold.
“I didn’t want to admit it was true.”
No response came from within the bamboo curtain.
“Six year ago, you tried to kill me. You betrayed Gyousou-sama and committed high treason. That makes you my enemy twice over.”
Taiho, Kouryou whispered, but Taiki’s gaze did not faulter in the slightest.
“I could hardly be expected to accept that the imperial aura should rest upon you. But at the end of the day, I am nothing more than the vessel of Providence.” He spoke as if observing the affairs of some unrelated third party. “I do not choose. Heaven makes the choice.” He added in a murmur, “You are the emperor. Unfortunately.”
From behind the curtain echoed stifled laughter. “Quite true.”
“I once feared Gyousou-sama. When I was on Mt. Hou, I was gripped with the impression that something foreboding this way comes. Even after we met, that impression did not fade. Nevertheless, Gyousou-sama was the emperor. No matter how foreboding, I could not flee that conviction.”
This moment alone, a touch of nostalgia and regret colored Taiki’s voice.
“In the same way, however I may detest your existence, you are the emperor. As difficult as it may be for me to countenance, it remains a truth I cannot deny.”
Kouryou cast Taiki a sidelong glance. Was this the plan Taiki had spoken of? Or was he telling the truth? No. He shook his head in his heart. Utter nonsense. This too must be all part of the strategy, Taiki spinning lies in order to deceive Asen. His demeanor and the way he spoke was so calm and composed. But then why did it feel like he was speaking from the heart?
Perhaps because their audience shared that same impression, from the sidelines where Chou’un and his entourage were kneeling, Kouryou heard several of them groaning aloud.
“Of course,” whispered one.
“How ironic,” responded another.
As if deliberately cutting them off, Chou’un raised his voice. “To speak in such a manner, even for the Taiho is beyond the pale!”
Taiki glanced at him but did not respond.
Chou’un continued in a sullen grumble, “I am sorry, but I find your words difficult to accept. I have never heard of such a thing happening before. All the more reason to make a report to Asen-sama after conducting a thorough investigation. Considering the current circumstances—Rousan!”
Kouryou looked around the room in surprise. Rousan?
Rousan was the previous Daishikuu, the head of the Ministry of Winter, said to be a member of Gyousou’s inner circle. Kouryou was certain Asen would have arrested her long before now.
“Rousan! You are surely behind all this. You must be here. Show yourself!”
Chou’un’s entourage erupted in a chorus of muffled chatter. Behind them, a girl of slight stature stepped from the shadow of a pillar. Rousan, without a doubt.
Taiki glanced over his shoulder, no less startled than Kouryou. Rousan met his gaze with barely a raised eyebrow, a smile creasing her lips as she strode toward the throne.
“As I expected. What gave you the right to do such a thing!” Chou’un demanded, his face flushed with rage.
Rousan, in contrast, answered in a dry tone of voice. “I thought it necessary.”
She stopped at the foot of the throne platform and turned to face them. Asen sat right behind her. Rousan stood a step below, taking a stance that made a clear claim on the authority of the throne. Taiki faced her directly while Chou’un and his supporters eyed the two of them and raised objections from the wings. It was a scene that, given the place and the people involved, could rightly be described as strange beyond belief.
“What right do I have? How ironic. What gave you the right to conceal the existence of the Taiho?”
Kouryou caught his breath. So that was why Taiki had been ignored until now.
Chou’un looked like he’d taken a blow to the solar plexus. “I did so with the safety and well-being of His Highness always in mind!”
“You overplayed your hand,” Rousan said dismissively.
Stifled laughter drew their attention to the man sitting behind the bamboo screen. He called out, “Rousan, what do you think?”
Rousan said, “I shall not mince words. Just to be certain, the Minister of Two Cries confirmed this as well. The White Pheasant has not fallen. That means Gyousou-sama has not died. And that means the emperor of Tai is, as he was before, Gyousou-sama. And that makes you, who drove him from the throne and stole if from him, little more than a common criminal.”
Kouryou couldn’t help catching his breath. Confronted by such a brazen recounting of the unvarnished truth, Asen did nothing to challenge a thing she said.
“Well, yes, that about sums it up.”
Rousan calmly nodded. “Heaven changing its mind and choosing another while the current emperor still lives—such a thing has never happened before. And that the throne should then be given to the usurper? Impossible under any normal circumstances.”
“In short, you’re saying that Taiki made it up.”
Kouryou felt a cold sweat course down his back. Rousan, though, tilted her head to the side, folded her arms, and rested her chin on one hand.
“I wouldn’t go that far. After all, what is happening now in Tai is without precedent. With so many unprecedented things taking place, what was once thought impossible cannot be so easily dismissed.” Rousan narrowed her eyes and for a minute lowered her eyes as if deep in thought. “Or rather, the other way around.”
“The other way around?”
“Perhaps it’d more accurate to say that in unprecedented times, anything can happen.”
“Make up your mind! Which is it?” Chou’un interrupted in an irritated growl. “Is Asen-sama the emperor? How do you propose to confirm that assertion?”
“What assertion requires confirmation?” Rousan asked, giving Chou’un a startled look. “Who else but the kirin has ever decided who the emperor was?”
“Not good enough!”
“Not good enough,” Rousan muttered with undisguised sarcasm. She closed her mouth and again sunk into her thoughts. “I wouldn’t say there isn’t way to extract such a confirmation—”
Chou’un’s face lit up with excitement. “Let’s hear it and settle this matter once and for all!”
“It’s a rough and reckless but simple solution—have His Highness take a literal stab at Taiki.”
A shock of dismay rippled through the room. Kouryou leapt in front of Taiki, shielding him behind his back.
“What nonsense is this!” Chou’un shouted. “If Asen-sama is the emperor and you kill the Taiho—”
“I didn’t say kill him,” Rousan quickly added. “A stab, I said. Nothing fatal. For the Taiho’s shirei, however, allowing even a slight injury is no small matter. Were the one inflicting the injury the emperor, well, they would let that pass, would they not? But otherwise, they could not condone such an attack and would rise to his defense.”
She added with a small smile, “And perhaps take Asen’s head in the process.”
“Sheer idiocy!” Chou’un roared.
A resolute voice interrupted his tirade. “Fascinating.”
The bamboo curtains stirred and rolled up with ease. Beneath the curtains, the shadow emerged into the light, a figure clothed in imperial vestments.
Kouryou looked at his face, a face that hadn’t changed from the last time he had seen him. His countenance an icy calm, the traitor wore the false robes of a pretender. He carried a sword in one hand, his fingers wrapped around the hilt.
Kouryou was about to take Taiki by the shoulders and turn him away when Taiki stopped him.
“Kouryou, please withdraw.” His gaze fixed on Asen, Taiki displayed not the slightest sign of consternation.
Taiki looked at Kouryou, and Kouryou sensed what those quiet eyes were telling him. I cannot let this chance slip by. Here was an unparalleled opportunity to elevate Asen as the new emperor. No matter what Asen did with his sword, nobody was coming to Taiki’s rescue. As things stood right now, Taiki had no shirei.
Asen pulled the sword from its sheath and pointed it as Taiki. “You say that I am the emperor.”
“To my everlasting regret.”
Kouryou didn’t have enough time to react. Without a moment’s hesitation, Asen swung the sword, bringing the bare blade down from right to left across Taiki’s arms.
A scream rang out from amongst the onlookers. Then the silence flowed back again as everyone in the room froze in place.
A cold and cruel smile rose to the villain’s face. “Looks like he’s telling the truth.”
Arms crossed, gripping his shoulders, Taiki silently slumped to the floor, his countenance contorted with pain. Fresh blood brimmed from beneath the fingers pressed against his upper arms.
“Of course!” came startled exclamations from Chou’un’s entourage
Utterly unmoved, Asen looked down at Taiki. “I shall allow you to return. Somebody see to his wounds.”
With that, he turned on his heels. Sheathing the sword with an almost loathsome serenity, he returned to the throne.
Kouryou caught Taiki in his arms and cast his eyes around the room—at an utterly intrigued Rousan, at a flabbergasted Chou’un, at his white-faced assistants.
“Call a doctor!” someone called out. All of a sudden, the room thawed and people began to move.
“Taiho—” Kouryou said.
His face pale, Taiki nodded and said in a painfully faint voice, “Thanks for putting up with all of this.”