9-3 Chou’un was no less fit to be tied.
He couldn’t tell whether Taiki was telling the truth when he proclaimed Asen the new emperor. Without knowing, he couldn’t arrange a meeting with Asen. Too dangerous, was the consensus opinion. Then Asen himself summoned Taiki and rendered the whole matter moot. If true, that meant everything was back in Asen’s hands. Except Asen did nothing.
“Why hasn’t Asen-sama issued any directives or policy statements?”
These and other exasperated inquiries arrived on his desk from across the civil service. Chou’un could only growl with his own growing discontent.
Asen met with Taiki and said he condoned his return. In accordance with Asen’s words, Chou’un ordered that Taiki be ushered into the Imperial Palace. Based on the way Asen and Rousan reacted to his presence, there could be no doubts that this Taiki was the Taiho.
In fact, Chou’un only vaguely remembered meeting Taiki previously, and never up close. He had seen him on several occasions. He couldn’t have described his countenance in detail, but when Taiki stood in front of him, the whole question resolved itself in his mind right there and then.
Taiki had returned. That was fine. Taiki declared Asen the new emperor. Asen acknowledged as much. That being the case, Chou’un prepared for the wheels of government to start to turn.
They didn’t. It was like the entire matter began and ended with the encounter between Taiki and Asen.
“What is Asen-sama thinking? When is he going to be enthroned?”
To those questions as well, Chou’un could only hold his tongue and grind his teeth. This entire series of events was without precedent. They lacked an established course to follow. Chou’un and his fellow ministers had no idea where to begin. If Asen only delivered instructions to the bureaucracy, they could follow and implement them. But as he had before, Asen retreated to his rooms and remained silent as a stone.
“Shouldn’t Asen-sama be delighted with these developments?”
Craning her head to side as she asked the question was the Daisouhaku, the Minister of Spring. Her name was Kenshu. She had just met with Keitou and returned to the Chousai’s conference room. Aside from the Minister of Winter, five of the ministry heads were assembled there.
“I am sure Risshou-dono would have heard something in that regard.”
Risshou was the Taisai, the Minister of Heaven, responsible for the operations of the Imperial Palace. His job would have ordinarily put him at Asen’s side on a regular basis. Except the servants Asen chose to surround himself with did not include any from the Ministry of Heaven. Holed up inside the Rokushin, Asen wouldn’t even let them inside.
Feeling like the hard facts of the matter were being thrust in his face, Risshou frowned. “We have no way of knowing Asen-sama’s feelings on the subject. What about you, Kenshu-dono? Any ceremonies involved with the enthronement would be your domain.”
The snide edge to his response prompted a sullen pout from Kenshu. Kenshu wasn’t on any better terms with Asen than Risshou. From the start, Asen hadn’t demonstrated the slightest interest in the customary rituals or religious services. Since occupying the throne, he had not participated in the seasonal festivals and had not conducted the highly important Festival of the Winter Solstice. The Winter Solstice was again near at hand. Kenshu again made repeated requests and had not received a single reply.
“Goodness gracious,” Kyoushou exclaimed with a dramatic sigh. He was the Daishikou, Minister of Judicial and Foreign Affairs. “All this bickering will get us nowhere. In any case, if Asen-sama does not act, neither can the kingdom. The Taiho says he is the new emperor. By all rights, an enthronement must take place. But Asen-sama himself shows not the slightest interest. Why is that?”
Why did Asen not act? Though to them, the greater mystery was why he showed no inclination to govern.
“I apologize for repeating myself, but didn’t he desire the throne so much that he resorted to the force of arms to obtain it? And now that it is in his hands, he casts it aside.”
No need to tell us what we already know, Chou’un grumbled to himself. He couldn’t understand why Asen had abandoned even the pretense of governing, or why he had committed regicide in the first place.
Asen made that decision entirely on his own. Chou’un had never seen Asen express the kind of discontent that might give rise to a revolt. Rather, the exact opposite. As far as he could tell, Asen fit right into Gyousou’s new administration. And yet he suddenly rebelled. Chou’un could not begin to grasp why he committed regicide and then why he showed no interest in running the kingdom.
At the same time, Chou’un could only rejoice in Asen’s lassitude. Asen’s disinterest in governing had, by default, made Chou’un the de facto emperor, with all the power and authority that came with the office.
“At any rate, the decision is up to Asen-sama,” Chou’un said. “All we can do is wait.”
Kenshu said, “And if we wait, will a decision eventually arrive?”
Now Chou’un was the one sporting the sullen pout. They repeatedly sought approval for new programs and policies and received no satisfactory answers to any of them. When objections were raised, they were told such a course was “inadvisable.” But otherwise, the inquiry ended with reply, “Your petition to the emperor has been heard.”
Kenshu looked around the room. “Shall we seek guidance from the Taiho?”
Heichuu arrived in the main hall of the villa to inform them that Keitou desired an audience with the Taiho. Kouryuu nodded.
Keitou rarely showed up on the spur of the moment. He didn’t bother stopping if there was nothing out of the ordinary on the agenda. Kouryou didn’t take that to mean he was ignoring Taiki. Rather, it was Asen and Chou’un who pretended that Taiki didn’t exist, which caused Keitou no little distress. He usually retired to his portico rooms in the villa, ready to come running if called.
If Keitou had a reason to visit, he was sure to let Heichuu know first. He didn’t barge in, nor did he overstay his welcome. The previous day, when Taiki collapsed at the end of his meeting with Shison, he demonstrated real concern for Taiki’s well-being, offering without being asked to adjust his schedule in order to lighten his load. Though Keitou was a member of the enemy camp, Kouryou had to admit the man served Taiki with honest dedication.
“Ask him to wait while I get the Taiho.”
Kouryou headed to the back of the main hall and stepped into the north courtyard. Glancing about the gardens, he spotted Taiki beneath the low-hanging arbor of a small pavilion. Tokuyuu was with him.
It’s getting cold out here.
A tidy garden circled a pond. Across the pond, in the northwest corner of the courtyard, a large slab of stone formed a decorative mountain. From the top of the mountain, a narrow waterfall spilled down three stone terraces into the pond. Right beneath the summit, a small pavilion perched on the second terrace next to the waterfall. Taiki had grown quite fond of the pavilion. The tumbling stream filled a basin beneath the waterfall and overflowed into the crevices and crannies in the slab, raising the gentle sound of running water.
During this season, when snow threatened to fall even in the Imperial Palace, it seemed a chilly place. Taiki must enjoy the view. Climbing up to the pavilion, the gardens immediately to the east reached out below. Off to the southwest was the lovely bay in the Sea of Clouds. To the north, the keep of the grand Imperial Palace came into view.
While talking with Tokuyuu in the pavilion, Taki often turned his attention to the north. Regardless of the weather, he made a point of visiting the pavilion, facing the north, and bowing his head in prayer. Explaining that “I need to move around more,” he’d made of habit of it since his bout of illness the other day. Bun’en and his doctors thought a little activity was a good idea too, so Kouryou didn’t object.
The West Palace reached out beyond the west wing of the living quarters. Located there were the Imperial Roboku and the temple dedicated to the Lord God Creator. Tokuyuu believed Taiki was praying for a mild winter, but it looked to Kouryou like he was facing in a slightly different direction. Perhaps directing his prayers toward the heart of the Imperial Palace? On behalf of Asen, even?
With the current state of affairs stuck in the mud, and an aura of languor enveloping the palace like a thick fog, Kouryou sensed unsettling thoughts creeping into his mind as well. Call it a smoldering ember of mistrust. Did Taiki really loath Asen to the same degree his words suggested? When he dealt with Chou’un and Shison, his naked contempt for them was plain as day. But when it came to Asen, the man giving a free rein to Chou’un and Shison, Kouryou felt none of that scorn from Taiki.
He certainly asked why, but never in censorious tones, something Kouryou found incomprehensible.
He climbed the stone terraces of the decorative mountain. “Taiho, Keitou has arrived.”
Perhaps having seen Kouryou coming, Taiki appeared to be waiting for him. He nodded. Despite the hibachi, the inside of the pavilion was chilly. Tokuyuu sat there with his shoulders hunched against the cold.
Kouryou said, “Pretty cool in here, isn’t it? Are you sure it’s good for your health?”
“It’s a lot more stifling down there,” Taiki answered, but then turned to Tokuyuu with a contrite look and said, “I must apologize to Tokuyuu for dragging him out here.”
“Oh, I am perfectly fine,” Tokuyuu said with a smile. “It is cold here, but I agree how stifling the atmosphere is down there. With nothing to block the view, the vistas here are quite refreshing.”
If you say so, Kouryou thought to himself as they returned to the main hall, where Keitou was respectfully waiting for them.
“I came bearing a message from the Chousai,” he said, kneeling before Taiki. “Preparations must commence at once for Asen-sama’s enthronement. Surely the process will begin by escorting Asen-sama to Mount Hou.”
Finally, Kouryou thought. The log jam had broken. They were moving forward.
However elated he was with this development, it raised doubts as well. Asen’s accession would cause Taiki a host of new problems. Even if calling Asen the new emperor was a lie, turning it into the truth, however briefly, would make traitors of Risai and the rest of them.
Not only that, the whole point of the accession was the enthronement. That could only occur after a host of steps had been taken, chief of which was to travel to Mount Hou, visit the temple of the Lord God Creator, and officially receive the Mandate of Heaven.
Except the Mandate of Heaven was not going to be bestowed on Asen’s shoulders. At that point, the extent of Taiki’s fabrication would become evident to all. As far as Taiki was concerned, Asen’s accession absolutely could not be allowed to continue to its inevitable conclusion. But once they started down that road, there’d be no turning back. The risk of exposure growing day by day, all that awaited them at the end of the journey was their own destruction.
They had to rescue Gyousou before that happened. Except in their current state, under what amounted to house arrest, they lacked the means and the opportunity to carry out such a mission. No matter how much they wanted to save Gyousou, there wasn’t a thing they could do.
Kouryou growled under his breath. In order for Taiki to carry out his goal of saving the people of Tai, he had to imbue Asen with that same desire. But the accession presented him with a real problem. They simply couldn’t allow it to proceed. Not until they had first rescued Gyousou.
Kouryou looked on, these questions plaguing his thoughts, as Keitou continued.
“Considering that there is no known precedent for these events, the Chousai himself is perplexed as to how to proceed. He wishes to available himself of the Taiho’s advice on this matter.”
Stands to reason, Kouryou thought. Gyousou was the only emperor he’d seen enthroned. Except Gyousou had gone on the Shouzan. Until the kirin selected the next ruler, he dwelt on Mount Hou in the middle of the Yellow Sea in the center of the world.
A candidate seeking to become the next emperor or empress entered the Yellow Sea with the express purpose of climbing Mount Hou, meeting the kirin, and petitioning Providence for a yea or nay. That was the sum and substance of the Shouzan.
Gyousou climbed Mount Hou. Taiki chose him. Then and there the accession was complete. The White Pheasant sang. The Black Tortoise carried them to Hakkei Palace. At that point, Gyousou was already officially the emperor.
There were emperor and empresses who had not gone on the Shouzan. The kirin purposely sought them out and urged them to accept the throne. In those cases, in order to officially complete the imperial accession, they had to travel at least once to Mount Hou.
That much was common knowledge. But when it came to an actual enthronement, Kouryou had no idea what traveling to Mount Hou involved. The journey across the Yellow Sea to Mount Hou was dangerous in the extreme. This was a land infested with youma and untouched by human civilization. Any candidate who crossed the Yellow Sea on the Shouzan was literally risking his life.
An emperor to whom the Divine Will had already been manifested should not need to go on such a dangerous journey. It was not hard to imagine a worst-case scenario where both the emperor and the kirin accompanying him ended up dead.
There must be a safer solution than that, but Kouryou hadn’t heard of it. He had the feeling that perhaps no one in the Imperial Palace right now had the foggiest idea. He’d have to ask Taiki directly. But if Taiki were to be believed, Asen was nobody’s emperor.
The unanswered question was whether there was a safe way to escort not-the-emperor Asen to Mount Hou, and if there was, whether could Taiki avail himself of it. Kouryou was pondering these possibilities when Taiki answered the petition put to him.
“That is something I cannot do,” he said point blank.
That was an answer Keitou clearly had not expected. “When you say you cannot, what precisely does that mean?”
Taiki inclined his head as if listening to a far-off voice. “The Divine Will has been revised. No, these revisions are still underway. As such, they remain in an uncodified form. Gyousou-sama remains the de jure emperor of this kingdom. Two emperors cannot reign at the same time. Thus it follows that Asen-sama cannot be formally enthroned.”
“Forgive me,” Keitou said, no less confused than he was before. “But I am not sure of what you are saying.”
“Gyousou-sama is presently alive somewhere, is he not? If he is here on the palace grounds, then he must travel to Mount Hou where he will abdicate.”
“W-wait!” Keitou blurted out. “Are you saying that Gyousou-sama himself would relinquish his office? Is that something Gyousou-sama would ever consent to?”
“Then it will become necessary to prevail upon him. That is why Gyousou-sama must first be brought here.”
So Taiki declared. Keitou bowed low in response. Kouryou could barely believe his own ears. Was this also part of Taki’s plan? If so, it was outrageous in the extreme. Taiki was asking that Gyousou be brought to him, to the Imperial Palace.
All the evidence told them Gyousou was not in Kouki. If Asen had him secreted away somewhere, then Taiki was, in so many words, telling Asen to produce him. Except that would be the same thing as the emperor returning to the Imperial Palace. Taiki had said that Gyousou was still the rightful emperor of the kingdom. If the rightful emperor showed up in the Imperial Palace and met with the kirin, then there was no reason for Asen to be there.
Asen was never going to go along with that.
Kouryou made sure Keitou had left before he started to say in a small voice, “Taiho, there is no way—”
Taiki cut him off with a look. He shook his head and cast a glance in the direction of the bedroom where Tokuyuu and Shouwa had withdrawn. They knew nothing of Taiki’s schemes. Understanding the meaning in that look, Kouryou closed his mouth said no more.