9-2 Keitou was no less depressed.
Taiki harangued him day and night. It was unavoidable and inevitable. As province lord, Taiki wished to exercise his authority to rescue the people of Tai. The day before, snow again covered Kouki. The snow was not yet accumulating in measurable amounts, but periods of fair weather came less frequently. Soon the lingering snow would not melt away even when the skies cleared, and the ground would no longer yield harvestable food.
In an impoverished kingdom like Tai, the assistance of the government was critical. Nevertheless, for the time being, Taiki couldn’t do a thing. Chou’un and Shison, the provincial prime minister, fled from Taiki’s presence like birds from a cat and wouldn’t act on any of the directives he sent them. This treatment of a kingdom’s Saiho was, by any estimation, beyond the pale.
Taiki naturally bristled at their conduct, and Keitou was the person upon whom he vented his simmering dissatisfaction.
To start with, Keitou had been one of Asen’s staff officers. Tai ended up in its current state thanks to Asen. As far as Taiki was concerned, that made Keitou the underling of his mortal enemy. He vociferously voiced his displeasure in Keitou's presence and the attitude he showed him was frosty in the extreme.
There was nothing Keitou could do about that. He himself did not in any way intend to slight Taiki and hoped no less to help the people. In that light, it stung being perceived by Taiki and his retinue in such hostile terms.
“So Asen-sama’s accession is not being moved forward?” he asked Chou’un.
Since Taiki had designated Asen as the new emperor, normal expectations held that preparations for the enthronement should be well underway. Except nothing appeared to be happening.
“Asen-sama has handed down no instructions along those lines,” was all Chou’un said in a peevish manner.
Does Asen-sama demonstrate no desire for an enthronement? Or does he doubt the veracity of the Taiho’s pronouncement?”
“I don’t know. I am as confused about the whole situation as you are. What do you think, Keitou? Asen-sama personally put you in charge of the Taiho. Has he given you any further instructions in that regard?”
There was an accusatory edge to the question, but Keitou was equally at a loss. He was only one of Asen’s staff officers. Or rather, one of his former staff officers. Nothing like the army Asen once led currently existed.
The soldiers who’d served in that army received new enlistments or commissions and joined reorganized military units. Many of his former officers ended up in the Ministry of Summer.
When Gyousou first disappeared and Asen took de facto control of the Imperial Court, Haboku headed the Ministry of Summer. When accusations of sedition were leveled at Haboku, he and his close associates fled the palace. Shukuyou, one of Asen’s military commanders, assumed the office. Shukuyou, in turn, nominated Keitou as vice-minister.
That nomination had sat in limbo ever since. The Ministry of Summer would not accommodate another military appointment. Upon being nominated, Keitou resigned his position as staff officer and received the consent of his superiors to become vice-minister. But the papers approving the personnel transfer, which should have taken no more than a day or two, never arrived. No one could offer an explanation.
While Keito waited for the transfer to arrive, the vice-minister’s post remained unfilled. An irritated Shukuyou tried to petition Asen directly. His requests for an audience were rebuffed. Resigned to the inevitable, Shukuyou had no choice but to push the matter aside and assign the portfolio to the regular bureaucracy while waiting for the logjam to break somewhere.
That was when an envoy dispatched by Asen arrived with the unexpected news that Taiki had returned and Keito had been appointed as his personal advisor. He was given a badge and wooden passcard, and told to take all measures necessary in order to accommodate Taiki’s abrupt arrival.
Those were the last specific instructions he’d received. At some point, all that vagueness and indecision became the norm.
With Asen permanently holed up inside the Rokushin, everything else was left to Chou’un, though all matters of critical importance were simply shelved. Exercising his authority as Chousai, Chou’un could otherwise do as he pleased.
“What I’m asking is, what do we do with these requests from the Taiho? At the very least, if the Provincial Rikkan would simply—”
Chou’un stopped Keitou mid-sentence. “I don’t want to hear about it. In the first place, on what authority are you raising such matters with me?”
Keitou had no answer to that objection. All Chou’un apparently knew was that an official notice had left everything up to Keitou’s discretion. Except Keitou hadn’t been given the commensurate rank or position. The badge and pass that allowed him to freely traverse the grounds of the palace identified him as an assistant lord steward. But he didn’t officially hold the rank of an assistant lord steward. In no way could he issue orders to someone like Chou’un.
Casting a resentful glance at the departing Chou’un, an increasingly mortified Keitou couldn’t help wondering what he’d done wrong to deserve getting stuck in this vexing predicament.
“The Taiho’s security detail?” Yuushou asked, sitting down across from Keitou.
Keitou nodded. “The only person presently assigned to that role was a regimental commander in the Palace Guard of the Center. I’m concerned about his ability to hold up. Handling the job all on his own must be taking a toll. He needs someone to trade shifts with. I was wondering if you could recruit one of your officers for the job.”
Yuushou was one of Asen’s subordinates. He’d been recently promoted to the rank of general in the Palace Guard of the Right. He and Keitou had been friends since they joined the military.
“Someone with a good grasp of court protocols and an amiable personality.”
“That wouldn’t be a problem.” Yuushou had just gotten home and was changing out of his uniform, as was his habit, discarding his clothing hither and yon as he spoke. His living quarters were, as a result, in a constant state of disarray. “Would the Taiho accept them into his retinue? We are the enemy, after all.”
Keitou had to hang his head. Yuushou was only pointing out the obvious. “But—we can’t be enemies now. Because Asen-sama is the emperor.”
“Logically, yes. Not so simple a matter emotionally. Who is this regimental commander from the Palace Guard of the Center?”
“The name is Kouryou.”
“Ah, General So, the legendary master of hidden weapons. Well, then, he should be able to handle any emergency all by himself.” Yuushou grinned. “Okay, probably not. It’s not hard to imagine situations that could overwhelm one man.”
“My thoughts exactly. He’s wearing himself out. In fact, he is looking a big gray. The two doctors aren’t faring much better. They seem to be slowing down a bit of late. If they simply need to be on call, then two should be enough, but they’ve had to take on the roles of guards and servants. Their jobs are hard enough as is, and this only increases the stress. Sooner or later, somebody’s going to collapse.”
Yuushou said as he gathered up and folded the scattered articles of clothing, “I still think recruiting from Asen-sama’s retinue is asking for trouble. What about Ganchou-dono’s men? They should fit in without any difficulties.”
“Chou’un would never agree to that.”
“He’d never agree to it?”
“Chou’un is doing everything he can to prevent contact between the Taiho and the men who served under Gyousou. He says there’s no telling what might happen. It’s the same with provincial ministers and imperial ministers who served in the previous regime. He won’t allow them to get close to the Taiho. The only exceptions are the kirin doctors. You can argue that they were never part of Gyousou’s retinue.”
“What about his attendants?”
“Well, there is the valet and the lady-in-waiting and her maidservants. Chou’un was responsible for the valet. And the lady-in-waiting—” Keitou lowered his voice. “Probably his spy.”
Hiding Taiki away in a secret room was enough to earn his disapproval, even if it was Chou’un who did it. And Chou’un definitely had planted a spy close to Taiki. Keitou was pretty sure it was Shouwa. As of yet, he didn’t have any evidence to back up this supposition. If forced to say, he’d call it less the instincts of a military officer and more a soldier’s intuition honed from serving for many years on the front lines.
“I haven’t confirmed it with him, but I’d bet that Kouryou has noticed too.”
“Hmm,” said Yuushou, now down to his underwear. He stepped onto the raised hearth and sat down and folded his arms. A fire was lit in the hearth and the room was comfortable warm. “In any case, transferring anybody from my command would require Shukuyou’s stamp of approval.”
“I don’t think Shukuyou has any objections to the makeup of the Taiho’s personal detail.”
Yuushou nodded. “Probably not. Even if Chou’un went along with whatever Shukuyou decided, your charges will be wary of anybody you bring to the party. Another burden to shoulder. You might want to give the whole idea a rest.” After a moment’s thought, Yuushou continued. “The only solution is to get a stamp of approval from Asen-sama. That way, everybody would have to accept the decision. The Taiho would still end up with more on his plate to deal with. But at least you could draw up plans for his personal safety.”
“If only that were possible,” Keitou answered with a sigh. He’d been ordered to look after the Taiho and hadn’t heard a word since. There was certainly no way for Keitou to initiate any such contact on his own.
“What do you think Asen-sama is up to?”
“The Taiho asked. He wants to know why Asen-sama shows so little interest in governing. If he holds no great devotion to the office, then why seize the throne in the first place? Why do you think?” Keitou tossed him a balled-up cloak cast aside at his feet.
Pulling it on, Yuushou said, “Asen-sama certainly appears to have lost all interest in governing.”
“Ruling Tai in Gyousou’s place does not seem to have been his intention.”
“That’s the obvious interpretation.”
Keitou sighed. “I think Asen-sama burned himself out, as if overthrowing Gyousou was his sole objective.”
“His sole objective, eh?”
Keitou could empathize with the rivalry between Asen and Gyousou so much it hurt. Though the rivalry never showed on the surface, it could not be denied that Asen was constantly aware of Gyousou and incapable of ignoring how they measured up in the public eye.
“I have to think that was evitable. Their staff officers have been comparing Asen-sama and Gyousou-sama since the dynasty of Emperor Kyou. How could we not match them head-to-head on the merits? They were known as the two jewels of the crown. But flip that on its head. If one of them stumbled even once, he would inevitably be judged inferior to the other.”
“Though I always got the feeling that Asen-sama enjoyed the competition.”
Keitou nodded. A friendly rivalry, was how he’d always thought of it. He couldn’t help but be conscious of the rivalry between them. Asen especially seemed to enjoy feeding off the tension. And yet, if Gyousou took the lead, Asen was sure to praise him. “I would expect nothing less.” And when he edged ahead, he never cast aspersions on Gyousou.
Though Asen and Gyousou were never particular close as colleagues, Keito never attributed that to an unapproachable distance looming between them. Simply that Asen wasn’t the type who made friends easily, and not because he nurtured grudges. Naturally, on an emotional level, there must be those he was well-disposed toward, but he never let a relationship grow too close. That was how he maintained that comfortable level of tension.
As Keitou laid all this out, Yuushou retrieved a bottle of wine from a trunk and nodded. “I’ve always thought along those lines as well. Fact is, I never expected to become best mates with Gyousou’s officers. To be sure, there are good-natured chaps like Gashin and Kiryou. Our postings being what they were, we ended up frequenting the same taverns on more than a few occasions. They always made for good company to raise a little hell with. But it’s not like we went out of our way to extend the invitation to them or them to us. I figure the feelings were pretty mutual in that regard. Speaking of which, you in the mood for a drink?”
He casually offered Keitou a dusty teacup.
“You know, it wouldn’t kill you to clean up around here. You could at least hire a maid.”
“Naw. What a pain. Truth be told, I didn’t expect Asen-sama to rise up and make a stand like that. I was expecting the opposite.”
Yuushou filled the dusty teacup. “Maybe I was just pretending not to be a sore loser, but who was up and who was down, that was all water under the bridge. Gyousou-sama was the emperor. Asen-sama was his retainer. No need to stay at arm’s length in order to keep the competition going. I was sure they’ll hit it off together, take the enthronement as an opportunity to bury the hatchet and all.”
Keitou was honestly taken aback “The possibility never occurred to me,” he responded.
“No? When I heard that Gyousou-sama had been chosen as the next emperor, I thought things were going to get all the more entertaining from here on out. And I was sure Asen-sama felt the same.”
“You’re simply an optimist.”
Keitou really was surprised. At the same time, though, the way Yuushou read the situation wasn’t beyond the bounds of reason. Keitou happened to be with Asen when the word arrived. “It’s Gyousou,” the messenger said. In that moment, they were looking at the man delivering the news, so he didn’t see Asen’s initial reaction. But when he turned back, Asen was wearing a sardonic smile on his face.
“So that’s how things turned out, eh? Should have seen it coming.”
Keitou expressed stronger feelings of regret. “It’s not a decision I can accept,” he remembered saying.
Asen was his leader and his commander. Whatever the world thought or believed, Keitou would always hold Asen in higher esteem than Gyousou. He would grudgingly admit that Gyousou handled a sword better than Asen. But what did that have to do with governing? Asen was more suited to reigning as emperor. It was only natural that he should assume the throne.
When Keitou said as much, Asen only chuckled. “If the roles were reversed, Gyousou’s officers would be saying the same thing.”
“That may be so, but—”
“The sum and substance of nepotism.”
“I’m not talking about nepotism,” Keitou fumed. Anybody other than Asen being chosen as emperor aroused in him an unreasonable fury. “Gyousou is not invincible.”
Asen was the invincible general. Not only was Gyousou not invincible, he had openly defied Emperor Kyou’s directives and resigned from his post, actions that should have brought his qualifications as general into question.
“You were promoted to general before he was,” Keitou pointed out.
“But Gyousou was younger,” Asen said with an amused smile.
“Only because an open position needed to be filled. To start with, Gyousou-sama went on the Shouzan for his own benefit. You prioritized maintaining peace and order in Tai and stabilizing the political situation. That is only one example of what makes you more suited for the throne.”
When Emperor Kyou passed away and the Yellow Banners were raised, proclaiming that Taiki had commenced the selection process, Keitou and his fellow officers urged Asen to go on the Shouzan.
“At this time, I cannot take my eyes off Tai,” he said. Gyousou had already asked for a leave of absence to go on the Shouzan and the Palace Guard could not spare two of its commanding generals. If fate did not smile on Gyousou and he was not chosen, Asen would go on the Shouzan when he returned.
Keitou said insistently, “I believe there are few if any other men like Asen-sama in all of Tai with the strength of character to stay behind for the good of the kingdom.”
Asen again reacted with an amused look. “You really should take care not to get carried away with the compliments. After all,” he added, “I agreed with Gyousou that he should go on the Shouzan first.”
“You what?” Keitou had blinked in surprise.
“The night the Yellow Banners were raised, he unexpectedly showed up at my quarters. He asked me directly if I was going on the Shouzan.”
“How did you answer him?”
“I said I hadn’t yet given the matter any thought and asked him instead. Gyousou replied at once that he was. So I said he should go first. The kingdom couldn’t have two of its generals taking leave at the same time. When he returned with his head hanging low, that’s when I would go.”
Gyousou had responded with a chuckle. “You may live to regret that decision.”
“The order hardly matters. It’s up to Heaven in the end.”
“You’re right about that,” he said with a smile, and left.
“Gyousou expected we’d be going on the Shouzan at the same time,” Asen said, thinking back. “He was familiar with the Yellow Sea. I got the sense he could have even worked there as a guide. The Imperial Army would be down two generals, but the accession of a new emperor was the kingdom’s first priority. A clamor of voices was already promoting the merits of him or me. The longer things dragged on, maintaining a sense of unity would become all the more difficult at this critical time, with the Imperial Court splitting into competing factions.”
“Ah,” Keitou muttered. At that time, any bunch of bureaucrats with time on their hands debated who would be the next emperor. Back the right candidate now and generous rewards might be in the offing after the enthronement. Among the officials trumpeting Asen’s virtues to anyone who would listen were those who also criticized Gyousou in the most venomous of terms.
The opinions of the court had absolutely no effect on the opinions of Heaven, but get them in the same room together and the opposing camps were sure to glare daggers at each other. The civil servants who stuck with Gyousou hardly held themselves above the fray. In time, all this ugly internal dissension was sure to split the court into warring factions.
“Gyousou said that both of us returning with our heads hung low would be an equally welcome outcome because it’d quiet down the discord. I thought the same and so told him to go first. Even if we both didn’t vacate our posts and he went on the Shouzan, the civil service would still have to hold its collective breath and await the outcome. That should keep the factional strife from spinning out of control. He grinned and said it looked like we were both going to come home with our tails between our legs.”
“You don’t say—”
“But Gyousou ended up being the right one. I had always wanted to see the Yellow Sea at least once. I lost that chance. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t sting, but I do think Gyousou is better suited than anybody else. Emperor Kyou had always taken the military for granted. When Gyousou becomes emperor, I think you can expect to see some improvements in the way you’re treated as well.”
“Huh,” Keitou couldn’t help exclaiming.
“More importantly, the hard part comes after this. The early days of an imperial court are the toughest. You as well should be prepared to proceed with all due caution.” Asen added in a graver tone, “Gyousou is bound to lean on us a lot at first.”
As proof of those words, Gyousou appointed members of his retinue, along with Asen and Asen’s retinue, to important posts in the new administration. Never once did Keitou feel his contributions were being ignored or undervalued. Keitou reacted with deep emotion when he first heard the news of Gyousou’s accession, but when the shock of the moment passed, his normal composure returned. He found it easier to accept Gyousou’s enthronement than he might have other individuals.
Nevertheless, the vague resentment over Asen not being chosen continued to smolder in his heart. He could have better accepted the outcome if both Asen and Gyousou presented themselves at the same time and Taiki had selected Gyousou. But Gyousou went on the Shouzan first and was chosen first. To Keitou, it felt like he had stolen a march on the competition.
“I said as much to Asen-sama and caught and earful as a result.”
Yuushou laughed loudly. “A bad habit of yours. You don’t know when to give up.”
Keitou didn’t reply. Even after Gyousou was enthroned, the discord in the Imperial Court did not abate. Keitou though Gyousou was in too much of a hurry, justifying the rushed pace of his reforms with hasty rationalizations. He was hardly the only one who came to that conclusion.
“Gyousou-sama never struck me as living up to the ideals of an emperor.”
“What constitutes an ideal is very often the product of personal interpretation.”
“Are you saying you were never dissatisfied with the policies he was advancing?”
Keitou asked him directly. Yuushou looked away, a perplexed expression on his face. “I wouldn’t say I was dissatisfied. As far as I was concerned, those were interesting times. I can’t speak to whatever might have been on Asen-sama’s mind, but I wouldn’t call it dissatisfaction. To be sure, had Asen-sama ever been shown any disrespect, there would have been hell to pay. But I never saw that either.”
“But in the end, Asen-sama defied Gyousou.”
“And that’s why it caught me by surprise. The first I heard about attacking Gyousou-sama was before he departed for Bun Province. Asen-sama gathered all the new regimental commanders together for the first time and laid out his intentions.” Yuushou shook his head. “No,” he muttered, contradicting himself.
Asen hadn’t stated outright that a coup was in the works. Rather, he explained that strange things were afoot in Bun Province. When these unexpected events took place around Gyousou, they were to pay them no mind. A roundabout way of saying that Gyousou was the target. Something was going to happen in Bun Province, something like somebody traveling with Gyousou had orders to assassinate him.
That somebody was never identified, but Asen had given every aspect careful consideration, so they should take care not to interfere.
“It came like a bolt from the blue. Up until then, I couldn’t have imagined Asen-sama entertaining such thoughts. But having set his mind to the task, was I in any position to oppose him? He hadn’t only made up his mind, he had made meticulous preparations. That meant he had already taken the reasons and odds of victory into account. I had no desire to chime in with any objections at that point. I was his subordinate, after all.”
He understood, of course, that treason was a high crime. He believed himself resolved to take part in such a drastic course of events. To his great chagrin, when the moment arrived, he found himself relegated to the role of onlooker, not the man of action.
Startled, Keitou pressed him, “Yuushou, did you want to be told to kill Gyousou-sama?”
“I certainly didn’t want to be told. Being given such an order would have caused me great distress. There is no worse sin than high treason. I thought of trying to hold Asen-sama back. Following orders while knowing full well the crime I was committing creates quite a mental conflict. Precisely because it was such a big deal, thinking about all the others doing their duty as ordered really got me down.”
“When I heard than Asen-sama had rebelled against Gyousou-sama, I was frightened right down to my bones. I literally shook with fear.”
“Well, I know what that’s all about.”
Keitou only learned of what had happened only after it was over and done with. He and his fellow staff officers were dealing with the destruction and chaos in the aftermath of the meishoku at Hakkei Palace when the word came down.
“Asen-sama’s resolve was a terrifying thing to behold. He made up his mind and made all the preparations without any of us realizing a thing.”
Something must have happened, Keitou was sure. Something forced his hand and brought him to this decision. He must have been carrying the secret in his heart for a long time. This was no ordinary choice, no ordinary call to arms. For the first time, he was truly in awe of his commanding officer.
Yuushou nodded. “I understand the feeling.”
Keitou was frightened, but that ship had sailed. It did not take him long to grasp the whole of the situation.
The dynasty of a pretender was an unlucky one for a kingdom, clearly because a person with inferior abilities, who didn’t know his place in the world, occupied the throne. But a man with superior abilities wouldn’t be held back by any of those failings. Such was the absolute faith he had in his commanding officer.
“In fact,” Keitou said practically under his breath, “after the coup, things proceeded smoothly at first.”
But Yuushou maintained a gloomy silence.
When did the whole mechanism of state start to grind to a halt? As the details of Asen’s revolt gradually grew clearer, the administration of basic policy grew more ragged. Well, that was hardly unexpected. This was treason, after all. Of course, Gyousou’s retinue would rebel again Asen. Asen came under criticism as well from anyone who held the rule of law in high regard. Purging them from the government was the inevitable outcome. The kingdom had to be pacified under Asen’s firm hand
Keitou said, “That’s what I tried to convince myself of over and over. But I kept coming back to the sense that this wasn’t the road we should be headed down. I had never taken the time to contemplate my complicity in what was a serious crime. Despite allying myself with the perpetrators, I felt like a victim caught up in the aftermath of the crime.”
Keitou bit his lip. He still felt that way.
Despite all that, with Asen at the vanguard, inspiring and urging them on, they should have overcome such misgivings. Except at some point, Asen shut himself away deep in the Imperial Palace and handed over unfettered control of the political machinery to Chou’un, while greedy bureaucrats were given the run of their little domains. More and more civil servants staggered around like hollow-eyed puppets.
Asen’s retainers no longer trusted or respected any pronouncements from Asen. At some point they no longer saw him or even heard his voice.
“Why has Asen-sama so completely removed himself from our presence? How does a pipsqueak like Chou’un get himself promoted to such an important post, where he does nothing but plot and scheme all day?
“No idea,” Yuushou muttered.
“Seems to me that striking down Gyousou-sama left Asen-sama a hollowed-out husk.”
Tai was slowly sliding into the abyss, heading on a downward course that in time would become impossible to correct. As to whose fault that was, nobody would speak the name out loud, but everybody in the kingdom knew.
Keitou and Yuushou both wanted to bring back the old Asen they knew, but he was surrounded by a wall of petty bureaucrats and soulless puppets. No one was at liberty to approach him. Some ministers were so wracked with doubts over what Asen had become that they left government service. Others rose up in revolt and were slaughtered. Keitou had the hunch of all of this only exacerbated Asen’s isolation.
“But, of course, I thought this was just another rebellion,” Yuushou oddly remarked. A twisted grin rose to his face. “There have been plenty of coups in the past. In contradiction to the Divine Will, some person kills the rightful ruler and steal the throne. Asen-sama is a pretender who scorned Providence. And now he is reaping the just deserts. And so it seems he will be crushed by the weight of his sins.”
Keitou closed his eyes and shook his head. Did the Divine Will manifest itself with such brutal repercussions? He could easily imagine that, in the past, the end result of their savage deeds was to bring all those other pretenders and their accomplices to the same painful realization.
“But Heaven chose Asen-sama as the emperor.” Keitou raised his voice with the sudden realization. “He was not in the wrong, after all. Everything was for the good.”
Yuushou averted his eyes. “I don’t believe it.”
“I do not believe Heaven will forgive Asen-sama.”
“But—” Keitou could not find the words.
“I do not know what will happen after this. At best, we can only hope we generals don’t need to know. The only thing that won’t change is that we are members of Asen-sama’s retinue.” He added with a sad smile, “But there is nothing right about the current situation.”