fresh layer of white covered the streets of Kouki.
Snow fell the entire day before, completely covering the city hugging the slopes of the Imperial Palace. The palace itself offered only a glimpse of the city. Now and then, the storms crowding the sky below the Sea of Clouds broke apart, offering a distant view of the world below. Most of the time, all that met the eyes was a great expanse of muddy gray.
The weather patterns suggested the snow would continue off and on. The undeniable conclusion was that winter had finally arrived in Kouki.
And yet, for Taiki and his retinue, the conditions of their house arrest—for lack of a better word—had not changed. They still could not do a thing for the people of Tai. Taiki’s moodiness only deepened. Kouryou had never found him an easy person to converse with. Recently, though, Taiki did not appear eager to talk to anybody. He strolled to the arbor in the courtyard every morning, and despite the weather growing colder by the day, spent more and more time there.
“So, what’s going on?” Kouryou said under his breath.
Tokuyuu was there in the room, grinding medicinal herbs. Kouryou hadn’t spoken that softly and should have been overheard, but Tokuyuu didn’t answer. Kouryou tipped his head in confusion. Tokuyuu had been acting a bit strange of late, as if he was present in body but not in spirit.
“What are you up to, Tokuyuu?” Kouryuu said, raising his voice.
Tokuyuu reacted with a start. He raised his head and blinked. “Yes? Eh? What was that?”
“Oh, it’s just that you look a little down in the mouth. Anything on your mind?”
“No. Nothing like that,” Tokuyuu answered, the expression on his face the same as always.
“You don’t say,” Kouryou muttered, his suspicions in no way allayed. He glanced at the front entranceway. “I guess Heichuu’s not coming.”
“Now that you mention it, I haven’t seen him around.”
Heichuu as well hadn’t been himself for a while. Like Tokuyuu, he often seemed in a daze. Believing he was worn out from the accumulated fatigue, Kouryou discussed the matter with Keitou and recommended that Heichuu take a day off and go home and get some rest. But a day later, it was past noon and he hadn’t shown up. Kouryou could only hope he wasn’t bedridden.
Fatigue brought on by hard work and exertion was one thing. The exhaustion that arose from doing nothing was quite another. A miasma of melancholic weariness enveloped Nightingale Villa. And then, as if mocking their misbegotten state, came the cooing of a dove.
The bird had nested somewhere in the villa. Echoing from the eaves in the midnight hours, its song aroused unsettled feelings, like a harbinger of bad luck.
Indeed, Kouryou was undoubtedly worn out as well. A profound sense of ennui descended on him late at night. Thinking about the circumstances that brought it about, the caused seemed obvious. They were fighting a war where they never engaged the enemy and never won a battle. Only the tension accompanying the promise of an impending conflict went on and on.
Around this time, Kouryou came to feel like he was living in a world of ruins. Common sense told him that countless government officials were living and working all around them. But he observed none of those activities from Nightingale Villa. The dispirited and taciturn Taiki, the enervated Tokuyuu, and perhaps because of his upside-down life, working late-night hours as Taiki’s attendant, Juntatsu appeared perpetually pale.
From the beginning, Shouwa had concerned herself with every detail of Taiki’s life. She was imposing herself on them less and less of late. Heichuu showed up infrequently, if at all. In the absence of any progress to report, Keitou simply stayed silent when he had nothing of substance to say. And whenever he did make an appearance, he did nothing to hide his gloomy disposition.
The servants moved about like shadows, working without uttering a word and disappearing when their jobs were done. Bun’en once bustled in a regular basis, bringing them news of the outside world. Nobody had seen or heard from him recently. Taiki was understandably concerned, as were Tokuyuu and Juntatsu.
A jail amidst the ruins.
Or perhaps Kouryou and the rest of them were little more than rootless ghosts roosting in the ruins.
“Nothing has moved forward in the slightest!” exclaimed Shukuyou, the Minister of Summer. He all but pounded his fist on the table. “Don’t you find this all rather strange?”
Kenshu, Minister of Spring, agreed. “The Taiho said that an abdication is necessary for us to proceed. Where is Gyousou?”
“Like I should know, Chou’un grumbled to himself.
“To start with, has the Chousai informed His Highness of that necessity and how it arose?”
Rankled by the tone of reproach in her voice, Chou’un glared at Kenshu. “Meaning what?”
Responding to his evident displeasure, Kenshu hurriedly rephrased the question. “No, I was only wondering if the Chousai had thought deeply about the subject and had reasons to keep things under wraps—”
Like harboring doubts about the Taiho’s version of events, Kenshu hesitated to add.
“Impossible,” Chou’un said with a dismissive gruffness.
For a brief period of time, Kenshu’s assumptions might have held true. Though Rousan seconded what Taiki said, Chou’un wasn’t convinced. He could not imagine Gyousou responding to demands for his abdication. In any case, Gyousou could not be allowed to return to Hakkei Palace to meet with Taiki.
At the same time, the constant barrage of inquiries from the civil service about what was going on only grew stronger. With Chou’un demonstrating no ability to end the stalemate, the currents of criticism were beginning to flow more freely. As with Kenshu, Chou’un was suspected of keeping Asen in the dark in order to preserve his power and prerogatives.
If these conditions persisted, they’d soon be calling Chou’un’s authority into question. Ansaku persuaded him that they had to go directly to Asen before things reached that point. With no other options available, Chou’un had to lay out Taiki’s arguments for Asen and get his thoughts on the matter.
However, every envoy Chou’un sent to Asen waited around twiddling his thumbs and returned bearing the same message as always. “Your petition to the emperor has been heard.”
“Unbelievable,” Chou’un clucked his tongue. When all was said and done, they ended right back where they started.
In fact, Chou’un had no idea what Asen was thinking either. Taiki called Asen the new emperor. Asen cut Taiki with his sword, apparently confirming the validity of what he said. But expectations that preparations for the enthronement would soon be underway were just as quickly dashed. Asen retreated deep within the palace walls. No news had been heard of him since.
Taiki said that Asen was emperor. For now, Asen’s assent to that statement was the beginning and end of the matter.
For the third time, Chou’un sent word through the Ministry of Heaven urging that they begin making preparations for the enthronement, and again received no response. Taiki’s statement that “Abdication is a prerequisite” raised the stakes to such a degree that it should shake the Imperial Court to the core, to say nothing of Asen himself. It was met with silence.
When a reply at last arrived, it said only, “Your petition to the emperor has been heard.” The same as all the others bearing Asen’s name. It had been heard. That was all. Chou’un couldn’t begin to fathom what designs Asen had in mind.
He dearly wanted to march into the Inner Palace and make his demands in person. But not even the Chousai was authorized to enter the Rokushin at will. He was beside himself with fury and frustration when a messenger arrived with a pressing dispatch from the Ministry of Summer.
“What’s going on?” called out Shukuyou, the Ministry of Summer, and made a beckoning gesture.
The kneeling messenger jumped to his feet. He hurried to Shukuyou’s side and whispered in his ear. Shukuyou’s face took on a stony demeanor.
“Where is this?”
The messenger answered under his breath but his words reached Chou’un’s ears. “A rebellion in I Province!” he exclaimed.
I Province was home to Gyousou’s birthplace. He was beloved by many people there. Since Asen seized the Imperial Court, rebellions had broken out there on a regular basis.
“I Province again. Where in the province this time?”
“I thought it had finally calmed down in recent years.”
“I Province is a dangerous place. We should go in there with everything we’ve got on hand and take care of the situation once and for all.”
Amidst the uproar, Shukuyou looked at Chou’un. “What do you think?”
“All we can do is what we’ve done all along. No matter what, we’re going to be told is that our petition to the emperor has been heard.”
The same as it had been for so long now.
At first, it was Asen who paved the way in every instance. Until at some point, he lost the will to stand in the vanguard. Since then, “Your petition to the emperor has been heard” was the answer to every inquiry. Chou’un and the Rikkan had no choice but to fall back on the established precedents. That was their only option this time as well.
Kashaku, the Minister of Earth, objected. “Are you sure that is the right course of action? I don’t quite grasp the reasons, but Asen-sama is the new emperor. The Taiho said as much, so it must be so. In that case, acting on the established precedents and doing what we’ve done all along should no longer be permissible.”
Chou’un furrowed his brows and looked at Kashaku. “Should Tai descend further into chaos, would the Divine Will that descended upon Asen-sama desert him? As a manifestation of the shitsudou?”
“That is possible,” Kashaku said, appealing to a sense of impending crisis. “In any case, shouldn’t we at least be curtailing the more merciless purges and eradication campaigns?”
“So we curtail them. Then what? How is that supposed to curb the discontent of the people?”
Most did not even accept Asen as an emperor pro tempore. They were far more likely to consider him a pretender. When a revolt broke out, Asen’s response was to destroy the city, root and branch, and everybody living there, even if they had nothing to do with the revolt. Doing so suppressed such insurrections by turning every citizen into a spy out of self-preservation.
But as a result, their discontent only festered. At some point, that festering discontent was bound to express itself in rebellion and civil strife. A small uprising in one place sparked similar revolts in unrelated locations, such that they became impossible to put down with a single and directed action.
Kashaku said, “The sooner we carry out the formal enthronement the better. Doing so should put an end to these scattered revolts.”