7-3 Taiki was moved at once to a side room in a corner of the main hall. Kouryou took a closer look at the wound. Though the sword had not cut to the bone, it was still a deep gash. Asen hadn’t checked his swing. Kouryou grabbed a swath of cloth and was pressing it against the wound when the doctor ran up.
The flustered physician immediate advised that a surgeon be sent for and went about staunching the flow of blood with the supplies he had on hand. The surgeon arrived and treated the laceration. At that point, the kirin doctor was finally summoned.
Kouryou could help thinking that all this random running about perfectly symbolized the disordered state of the Imperial Court.
And yet—somehow—he pulled it off.
Kouryou was as bewildered as he was surprised. And relieved. Asen bought the story Taiki sold him. Time after time, Kouryou felt the cold fear of getting backed into a corner with no exit. At least for now, Taiki had gotten away with his crazy scheme to anoint Asen the new emperor. With Asen’s consent, Taiki could formally return to Hakkei Palace bearing the authority of the Saiho and Province Lord.
What would they do next? The next step for Asen was a coronation. But the fact of the matter was, in this situation, Kouryou hadn’t the slightest idea what protocols were involved and wouldn’t know how to carry them out if he did. The path a new emperor took leading up to an imperial accession was a long and winding one.
And there was no way Taiki could follow it. Because Asen wasn’t any sort of emperor. He could announce his enthronement and put on a coronation ceremony. Those rites and rituals were under the jurisdiction of the kingdom and could be carried out according to Asen’s whims. There were certainly cases of pretenders going through the motions in the past.
But no one was truly crowned emperor until Heaven gave its blessing. Kouryou didn’t know what that involved either, except that auspicious omens and supernatural events accompanied the key events. None of that had occurred. Heaven had not smiled on Asen’s accession. At some point, the whole Asen-is-the-new-emperor thing was going to run aground in a bad way.
How do you intend to play your hand now, he wanted to ask Taiki, but they were surrounded by doctors and attendants. In any event, with Taiki lying on the ottoman, face pale, eyes closed, Kouryou hesitated at raising such matters now.
In the meantime, the kirin doctor arrived at a run, accompanied by several assistants. The veteran physician hurried up to Taiki and bowed low before him.
“Thank goodness you are safe and sound.”
Tears brimmed in the old man’s eyes. He had served the kirin as a doctor since the dynasty of Emperor Kyou. His was a familiar face for Taiki as well. Taiki’s expression filled with warmth and affection.
“Bun’en, are you doing well?”
“Yes. All the better that the Taiho should have kindly remembered this doddering old man.”
“But of course,” Taiki said. He turned his attention to the doctor’s assistants. “It is a great relief to know that you are all in good spirits.”
Bun’en said, “You’ve grown up.”
“I apologize for my long absence.”
“The Taiho has nothing to apologize for, especially after suffering so many unjust insults.”
The doctor reverently took hold of Taiki’s arms. The wounds had been treated but he examined them again. The gash crossed both arms from high on the shoulder.
“Heartrending,” he said at once. “Such unconscionable cruelly. Are you in any pain?”
“I’m feeling pretty numb right now.”
“These lacerations are deep but do not appear to affect any areas that would leave lasting damage. Even so, he need not have acted with such force.”
The doctor spoke with evident anger. He must have been informed about the events that had taken place. Bun’en reapplied the bandages, informed his assistants about what medicines to prepare, and took Taiki’s pulse.
Peering at Taiki’s face he said, “You truly have grown into a find young man. Nothing could have made me happier than meeting you again.”
As he spoke, he confirmed the particulars of Taiki’s condition and relayed detailed instructions to his assistants.
“Had you previously fallen ill? Your constitution appears to be in a weakened condition.”
“Yes, but I recovered.”
“Nevertheless, it must have been severe. The esui, perchance? Was Asen responsible?”
“No,” Taiki answered with a shake of his head. Then he thought about it and said, “Not directly. The meishoku transported me back to my home country. That is where I contracted the disease.”
“I heard that abominable Asen attacked the Taiho.”
“He cut my horn. That is why I could not return on my own.”
Bun’en gasped, his hands reflexively rising to his mouth. “Goodness gracious! The horn is the wellspring of a kirin’s life. And to take a sword to it! You say you fell ill in your home country? If not for the esui, it is possible the injury would have healed.”
Kouryou interrupted in at that point. “I heard the esui is a disease a kirin contracts through contact with impurities.”
Bun’en gave Taiki a look that asked who this Kouryou person was.
“He was a commander in Eishou’s army. We happened to cross paths and now he’s my bodyguard and traveling companion.”
“You don’t say.” Bun’en turned to Kouryou and nodded in a respectful way that conveyed his thanks. “Yes, the esui is a disease brought on by impurities. Hourai is not a healthy place for kirin in this regard. Kirin who are swept away there cannot hope to live long, or so I’ve been told.”
“I have recovered from the esui itself,” Taiki said. “In truth, my health is very much improved.”
“Is that so? I can only hope that the air in the Imperial Palace has not had an ill effect on you.”
“Is it that bad? You weren’t poorly treated while I was away, were you?”
“Oh, I’m sure he never gave me and mine a second thought,” Bun’en answered with naked sarcasm. Then he clamped his mouth shut and added quietly, “I have said too much. He is the new emperor, after all.”
Bun’en proceeded to straighten Taiki’s clothes like a mother sending her child off to school. “In any case, it has nothing to do with me. As long as the Taiho is healthy and hale, my job is done.” He glanced around. “Your retinue consist of your bodyguard only?”
“He does have his hands full looking after me.”
“By himself?” Bun’en looked doubtful, and let out a long breath. “But I am relieved to know you have a retainer you can trust. It should come as no surprise that the ministers of Zui Province have all been reassigned. I was worried about who among them would step forward to see to your care and well-being.”
“All of them?”
“I think it safe to say that every influential minister in the provincial Rikkan was removed from office. Ah, there’s no need to look so crestfallen. It’s not like they were punished. Because the ministers were all appointed by His Highness, they were given sinecures and put out to pasture, so to speak. For the time being, Asen has appointed himself lord of Zui Province. In essence, ministers at the imperial level are handling the governmental affairs of the province, eliminating any reason to fill those posts with provincial civil servants.”
“Bun’en, would you happen to know how Seirai or Tansui have fared?”
Seirai was the chief cabinet secretary of Zui Province and also served as the provincial prime minister. Tansui was the Daiboku, Taiki’s personal bodyguard. These two civil servants had been the closest to Taiki in his retinue.
The old doctor furrowed his white brows. “Tansui-dono accompanied Haboku-sama when he was accused of treason and fled the palace. Their whereabouts are currently unknown. Seirai-dono was arrested. I have heard nothing about where he is being kept or his fate since. I suspect only a few close associates of Asen know the exact place.”
“I heard he has been badly treated.”
“Such are the rumors. Though his life has so far been spared. A military surgeon in Asen’s retinue attended to him to make sure he suffered no grave harm. Though perhaps such attention has far more heinous implications.”
Kouryou groaned. Seirai had reportedly concealed the ledgers in the Imperial Treasury that recorded all the public monies available to the kingdom. He was likely being questioned about their whereabouts and being tortured as part of the interrogation. Having a doctor present to keep the prisoner alive until the sought-after information was extracted was a long-standing practice. The whole point was to avoid putting the prisoner in extremis while prolonging the pain.
“An undeniable cause for concern. Let us explore any avenues that might indirectly ferret out his whereabouts.”
“Please take care not to overextend yourself.”
“I am aware of what is involved. In any case, the Taiho should be assigned his own medical staff. It is unconscionable that he has only a single retainer. The overriding objective now is making sure he receives the necessary medical treatment.” Bun’en turned to his assistant physicians. “Tokuyuu, can you see to that for me please?
“Of course,” one of the doctors answered with unfeigned sincerity.
“Report to the Chousai that, for the next while, Taiho must remain under close observation around the clock while he rests and recuperates. No matter the time of day or night, inform me immediately of any decline in his physical condition or state of mind.”
“Thank you,” Taiki said.
Bun’en took Taiki’s hand in his old and worn hands. “No, I am the one who must thank you. We are so grateful you have returned.”