9-5 Shouwa sighed. “How did things come to this?” she quietly asked no one in particular. She sat down at a table that commanded a view of the courtyard.
“What?” Heichuu responded in an equally soft voice.
Shouwa didn’t answer. She wasn’t looking for a conversation. Heichuu had a good idea what she was talking about. The current situation was hard to believe, everything twisted beyond recognition.
Taiki met with Asen and was formally welcomed back to the kingdom. Heichuu was delighted when he heard the news, the pure joy that arose from knowing for certain the kirin of Tai had returned. At the same time, he also rejoiced knowing the rough treatment the Saiho had received until then could finally be corrected, and eagerly anticipated a return to the Saiho’s residences in the Enchou.
But all that was waiting for them was this small villa. Unavoidable, as the western half of the palace, starting with Jinjuu Manor, had been heavily damaged by the shoku. Jinjuu Manor no longer existed in any meaningful form, and little remained of the buildings that once constituted the Saiho’s actual living quarters.
Among the structures that survived, a few turned out to be in reasonably good condition, comfortable and architecturally sound.
Keitou chose Nightingale Villa and did his best to make it habitable. He also took great pains to bring as much order and stability to Taiki’s personal life as he could manage. Taiki was attended to by two court physicians at Nightingale Villa, Tokuyuu watching over him during the day, and Juntatsu at night.
With the doctors always on call, Heichuu spent less time personally tending to Taiki. Under Keitou’s direction, he instead focused his efforts on organizing all the various necessities that made Taiki’s life manageable.
That meant taking a step back from serving at his side. In fact, he’d never been comfortable waiting on the aristocracy and could never relax while around them. So this was like a weight being lifted off his shoulders. In the evening, however lonely it was returning to his room, he was grateful he could.
“It’s a bit odd having the outer courtyard all to ourselves, don’t you think?”
Bright sunlight filled the courtyard, spilling through the window glass and across the table. Though the weather was growing colder, here he could often find a spot of warmth. Basking in the sunlight like this, Heichuu felt the tension melting away.
That didn’t seem to be the case with Shouwa. Sitting at the table, she accompanied her needlework with a stream of complaints. The villa was too meager to serve as Taiki’s home. Taiki had been poorly handled from the start, not treated with the gravity he deserved. Heichuu got the idea she was voicing discontent about the way they were treated as well.
Only Kouryuu, Tokuyuu, and Juntatsu stayed in the main hall with Taiki. Heichuu and Shouwa shared the outer courtyard. Keitou had taken over the portico rooms in-between, and though they could freely pass back and forth, there was no denying the physical distance created between them and Taiki, nor the fact that the three in the main hall enjoyed superior accommodations.
“Well, we were dispatched here by the Imperial Court,” Heichuu consoled her.
As far as Taiki was concerned, the current Imperial Court was the enemy camp. They were the vassals of Asen who had stolen the throne from Gyousou. To Kouryou, who had served under Gyousou and was now Taiki’s chief retainer, they were his implacable foes.
And then, quite out of the blue, Asen, their ringleader, was chosen as the new emperor. Logically speaking, the Imperial Court was no longer the enemy. But it was understandable that neither Taiki nor Kouryou would be on any better terms with them than before. With Chou’un running the show, the Imperial Court was no ally of Taiki. The way they treated him was proof of that. Confiding him to the villa and depriving him of his authority as province lord made it clear they viewed him as an enemy as well.
“Weren’t Tokuyuu and the doctors dispatched by the Imperial Court as well?”
“The kirin doctors don’t belong to any political faction, because they tend to the untainted kirin.”
Bun’en and his colleagues had known Taiki from a young age. Taiki had no reason not to accept them at face value. The circumstances under which Heichuu and Shouwa came here were altogether different.
“That is true, but—”
Although it was an honor to serve in such close proximity to Taiki, Heichuu at times found the burden an overwhelming one to shoulder, especially considering the nebulous state of Taiki’s current political and social status and his heavy-hearted disposition.
“I would like to go home once in a while.”
Taiki being under house arrest meant that those who served him found themselves in the same straits. They couldn’t go home at the end of the day. They weren’t allowed to leave the villa. From Taiki’s perspective, they took their orders from the enemy camp. But as far as the enemy camp was concerned, they weren’t friends of this Imperial Court either. Chou’un considered them members of Taiki’s entourage.
“That’s why they take us for granted.”
Shouwa’s griping prompted a wry smile from Heichuu. She was a hard worker. Soon after arriving at Nightingale Villa, she had negotiated the particulars of the position with Keitou, assembled a staff of servants, and expeditiously put the villa in order. Though Tokuyuu and Juntatsu were the ones who tended to Taiki in person, Shouwa busied about without a break, catering the meals, planning the menus, and preparing his wardrobe.
At times, she seemed to be trying a bit too hard to run every aspect of Taiki’s life. After all, she had once attended to Taiki in Jinjuu Manor as a lady of the court.
Not so for Heichuu, for whom this was all quite out of his normal line of work. He served Taiki as well, but had no idea what was necessary and what should be prioritized. All that not knowing wore on his nerves. He felt a constant weight inside his skull, like a dull headache that wouldn’t go away.
“I do believe a dove is nesting somewhere around here,” he blurted out.
Shouwa paused at her needlework and lifted her head. “You’re right. There is.”
“It starts cooing in the middle of the night. Never fails to startle me. Thanks to that bird, I have a hard time getting a good night’s rest.”
“That’s because you’re not moving your body around enough,” Shouwa stated in her matter-of-fact voice.
Heichuu flashed another wry smile. Offering no excuses, he looked up at the overhanging eaves of the courtyard rooms behind them. He never saw it but could certainly hear it. It was definitely there, its cries creating the aura of a dreary forlorn and forgotten palace.
I really would like to go home.
He had a wife and child at home. Believing the new dynasty would surely bring good times, he’d gotten married after Gyousou was enthroned. They petitioned the palace riboku for a child. The son they’d been blessed with had turned two years old. He was beginning to walk and talk and was cute as a button. Heichuu would much rather be watching over his son right now.
I wonder what my colleagues are up to, he wondered, casting his thoughts down to the Administrative Palace below the Sea of Clouds.
The transfer caught Boushuku and the rest of his fellow junior retainers by surprise. To start with, they hardly ever met face to face with the director of security for their current post. He didn’t show up that day either. Instead, a low-ranked civil servant appeared at roll call and read aloud their orders.
They’d been transferred to the Zui Provincial Guard as members of the Saiho’s security detail.
Boushuku didn’t expect they’d actually end up guarding the Saiho himself. After all, they’d previously been assigned to the emperor’s security detail and ended up not guarding anybody. Boushuku hadn’t seen Asen once.
They reported to the director of security from the provincial Ministry of Summer. Director Fukushou informed them that their new duty station was Nightingale Villa. Depending on their watch rotations, they would patrol the grounds or stand guard inside the villa. But they were not allowed to enter the main hall where the Saiho lived.
“Figures. We’re not actually going to be the Taiho’s bodyguards,” said a clearly disappointed Boushuku.
Gogetsu smiled and shrugged. “Well, that’s the way this job goes.”
Gogetsu said that a lot these days. Boushuku wanted to serve Asen, or in this case, serve Taiki. Gogetsu did not appear to be possessed by any fervent passions in that regard and always carried on in a disinterested manner. Yet he performed his duties with diligence and dedication. Many of his colleagues looked forward to wasting every second of spare time given them. That included some who would start drinking and gambling at noon if the opportunity availed them.
Gogetsu might have preferred to share more in common with his fellow junior retainers, but he showed no interest in such activities. Boushuku thought that sad and unfortunate.
Apparently, the Daiboku alone was attached to Taiki’s security detail. That was an obvious oversight. There should surely be more guards than him. According to Gogetsu, those were the cards they’d been dealt, so they might as well resign themselves to the status quo.
“But no matter how you look at it—”
“Considering our formidable presence inside and outside the villa, I don’t see a problem.”
“True, but—what about when he goes out?”
“He doesn’t go out.” The droll smile on Gogetsu’s face said he somehow felt sorry for Boushuku. “And if by chance he does, the commensurate orders will come our way.”
Boushuku watched Gogetsu march off on patrol and muttered to himself, “Gogetsu can’t be at all happy about this either.”
Behind him, Fukushou sat at his desk. He’d occupied the guardroom next to the entranceway since that morning and was sorting through a pile of paperwork. The director was in charge of the security details, a position usually not assigned to the military but to the civil service. His job was ostensibly to supervise and coordinate the activities of the Daiboku, who was a military officer, and the junior retainers.
In practical terms, he supported Boushuku and his colleagues as an administrative official.
“Can’t see why he should be unhappy. Only that Asen-sama’s retainers do find themselves in a bit of a bind these days.”
“A bind?” Boushuku said with a quizzical tilt of his head. But Fukushou had nothing more to say on that subject, answering him only with a smile that seemed tinged with hidden shadows. “You just became a centurion, Boushuku?”
“And yet so young. You must be quite capable.”
Boushuku batted away the compliment with a wave of his hand. Truth be told, his service record didn’t list any particularly outstanding achievements.
“Where were you born?”
Fukushou grinned. “I imagine you come from a well-to-do family.”
“Well, yes, I suppose.”
“Thought so,” Fukushou chuckled. “You have that blue blood look about you. You attended a military school, didn’t you? Why’s that?”
“I heard it was the alma mater of the previous emperor.”
Boushuku felt his face growing warm. He came from a family of government officials. Everybody expected him to attend the provincial academy but he chose a military school instead. The previous emperor had just been enthroned and it was the school the previous emperor attended. He’d been enamored with Gyousou at the time.
“What? That’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”
“I’m not embarrassed. Only it sounds childish when I hear people talk about it.”
“Well, that’s what deciding to become a soldier usually comes down to. It’s a better reason than doing it for money or social advancement.” Fukushou raised an eyebrow. “Seems a good fit for you. Getting promoted to centurion at your age is a fine achievement. Do you have a specialty?”
“I couldn’t point to any one thing that I excel at more than any other.”
“In other words, you can do anything.”
“Not at all!”
Boushuku was feeling chagrined again. He did not excel at any one thing. There wasn’t anything he was bad at either. Generally speaking, he could carry out his orders without mistakes, but beyond that, he wasn’t the kind to stand out and go the extra mile. When he was in military school, that was said to be his biggest flaw. Since being commissioned, he hadn’t earned any commendations for exceptional service. He simply had no black marks on his record.
He also had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. When he graduated from military school and entered the army, his first platoon leader was a highly capable man.
Five soldiers formed a squad and five squads of twenty-five soldiers constituted a platoon. Each squad selected a squad leader, and one among those five also served concurrently as the platoon leader. The squad leaders were soldiers with meritorious service records or long experience. Or were military school graduates like Boushuku.
Boushuku was promoted to platoon leader. His platoon leader, in turn, became a company commander. Because his previous platoon leader was an exceptional man, Boushuku took over an exceptionally well-trained platoon. Word got around, and when Shinryou was promoted to the Imperial Army, Boushuku’s platoon transferred along with him.
“Although I had accomplished nothing all that noteworthy myself, I became a platoon leader in the Imperial Army. All the recent confusion notwithstanding, last year I was, as expected, promoted to centurion.”
As long as his kept his nose clean, a military school graduate was pretty much guaranteed to advance at least as far as centurion. The job of a squad or platoon leader was to represent the unit to the commanding officer. The centurion was a commissioned officer in charge of four platoons and no longer a member of the units he commanded.
He also became eligible to be listed in the Registry of Wizards. With no unique achievements to his name, following the established customs and precedents, Boushuku became a centurion.
Fukushou laughed out loud. “Being able to take advantage of opportunities handed to you on a silver platter is indeed a worthy achievement. Your contribution henceforth will be to bring good luck to the table.”
In the realm of departmental directors, Fukushou was as big-hearted and easy-going as they came. Used to crusty bureaucrats, Boushuku found his personality almost unnerving.
“Director, were you one of Asen-sama’s staff officers?”
“Hardly!” Fukushou chuckled. He indicated the pile of paperwork. “Does this look like the desk of an efficient military man worthy of being named a staff officer?”
The disarray on his desk was not shaping up in an expeditious manner. Rather, Boushuku couldn’t help recalling the cliche that a cluttered desk was the sign of a cluttered mind.
Hearing no answer, Fukushou said, “I was a battalion commander in Asen’s army. I worked my way up the ranks so I know the ropes. But administrative work is not my forte. You and I should trade places. With your college education, you’d have this paperwork thing down backwards and forwards.”
“Huh,” Boushuku said, but in his head he didn’t disagree.
When it came to basic logistics, managing personnel and moving equipment and supplies around, the military was the same as any other organization, including all the attendant paperwork. Officers up to the rank of centurion weren’t assigned a secretarial staff. They did all the desk work themselves. It could get quite complex, and a knowledge of the rules and regulations was necessary.
A foot soldier who worked his way up the ranks would have plenty of practical hands-on experience but plenty of holes in his education as well.
“If there’s anything you need help with, just let me know.”
“Thanks,” Fukushou said, with a heartfelt sincerity as oddly out of place as the man himself.
Her master summoned Yari and stood at the window, gazing down at the Sea of Clouds. “It must be snowing in the world below.”
Sunlight bathed the balcony here, though the temperatures would drop precipitously when evening fell. The Sea of Clouds beyond the balcony was shaded a dark charcoal gray, a sure sign of clouds covering the world below.
They both lifted their gaze from the Sea of Clouds. Her master said, not turning around, “I have a job for you, Yari”
Then the young girl remembered her place and knelt and bowed her head.
“I’d like you to join the Taiho’s retinue.”
Yari lifted her head with a start. Those were the last words she’d expected to hear.
“The Taiho needs people around him who can protect him. I cannot entirely trust the security detail dispatched by Chou’un.”
“If you so order, then I would be happy to. But wouldn’t Ganchou be a better choice?”
“There are limits to my ability to order Ganchou around.” An exasperated sigh accompanied that acknowledgment. “People are saying the Taiho should be treated with greater care. I don’t know when, but we can expect the number of guards to increase before long. Those on the Taiho’s side will naturally be reluctant to accommodate them. They report to Chou’un, after all, and accepting them means accepting Chou’un’s prerogatives.”
“And you wish me to be one of them?”
“You’re good at slipping into a crowd. I’ve done all I can from my end.” Her master urged Yari to her feet. “One person close to the Taiho has taken on the role of Daiboku, a regimental commander who served under General Eishou. His name is Kouryou. He fortuitously encountered the Taiho outside the Imperial Palace and accompanied him here. Kouryou appears to be the only person acting in that capacity who has the trust of the Taiho. Except Kouryou by himself cannot fill all the roles as the Taiho’s Daiboku. Staffing levels should be increased, but the Taiho’s inner circle is understandably not eager to allow another armed guard into his immediate vicinity.”
“And that would be me? I have no social standing.”
Her master nodded. The girl had no formal rank or position. Put another way, she stood outside the reach of Chou’un’s authority.
“Through the work of several intermediaries, we are in the process of infiltrating the equivalent of a private army into the palace. If you take this assignment, you will become a permanent member of his retinue and eventually be listed on the Registry of Wizards. Will you go?”
“If that is what you wish me to do.”
“That is indeed what I wish you to do. When you enter the Taiho’s retinue, you will follow his lead. What I want will no longer matter.”
Yari furrowed her brows. “Does that mean I will report to the Taiho and not to you? He will be my master and not you?”
“That’s what it comes down to.”
“I changed my mind. I refuse.”
Her master said with a knowing smile, “There is no conflict of interests between the Taiho and myself. I wish to save Tai and save its people and return Gyousou-sama to the throne. We share the same desires.”
Yari craned her head to one side. “Didn’t the Taiho declare that Asen was the emperor?”
“Impossible. Our next emperor would never be chosen before Gyousou-sama died. Even if worst came to worst and Gyousou-sama did die, Asen would never be chosen as his successor.”
“No. Were he the emperor, he would have already been deservedly branded a villain who succumbed to the shitsudou. Asen is not and never will be the emperor. Think about it. Why would the Taiho say he is? Because that is for him the best way to save the forsaken people of Tai, in which case, our wishes once more coincide.”
“If so, then isn’t serving you the same as serving the Taiho?”
That smile again. “You do have a point. On that account, there is no great difference between us, as we are both striving toward the same goal. Please, Yari.”
The girl nodded. She rested her hands on the hilts of the swords at her waist. “Then I will decide who I will call my master. If that is all right with you.”