12-4 Risai and Seishi commenced an expedited search for swords that fit the buyer’s requirements. Two days later, weapons in hand, Seishi and Shuukou set off for Rouan. Traveling there took two days on horseback. Several long days would elapse before they got back to Rin’u. The wait could stretch out if they encountered blizzard conditions along the way.
At times like this, it really stung not being able to use the far too conspicuous kijuu.
Three days later, still impatiently awaiting their return, Ki’itsu stopped by for the first time in a while. No storms waited on the horizon. The air had been bitingly cold, though the snow wasn’t deep enough to impede the determined traveler. The day as well was suffused with a soft light and the freezing temperatures moderated somewhat by the time he arrived.
So his flustered countenance could not be attributed to the weather.
“Did something happen?”
In response to Risai’s question, Ki’itsu averted his gaze and didn’t respond. He appeared to be struggling for the proper response.
“Ki’itsu? What’s the matter?”
“Actually—” Ki’itsu started to say, and again couldn’t finish the sentence. “Today, I caught a rather severe scolding from Jokan-sama.”
When Risai responded with a quizzical expression, Ki’itsu raised his head and said with what could only be described as a cornered look on face, “Risai-sama, please don’t get upset at the question I’m going to ask you. Where exactly is the Taiho?”
Asked straight out like this, Risai was hard pressed to answer. She couldn’t simply say, “I don’t know.”
As she struggled in silence, Ki’itsu said, “Risai-sama, when you came here, Enchou-sama at Zui’un Temple prepared papers for you. The Taiho was with you at the time. But in fact—”
“That is—” Risai started to say. Her voice trailed off.
Kyoshi said, “The plan in the beginning was for him to accompany us. But we came under more scrutiny in Bun Province than expected and judged it too dangerous to go on together. More specifically, we hoped to relocate the Taiho to a safer place in the meantime. We couldn’t afford to have anything to go wrong at that juncture.”
Risai nodded with obvious relief. Except Ki’itsu didn’t look at all convinced.
“Do you fully concur with the truth of what Kyoshi is saying, Risai-sama?”
“Are the Taiho and Risai-sama actually acting with the same objectives in mind?”
Kyoshi stared at him. Was Ki’itsu suggesting that Risai only using Taiki’s name to advance her own agenda? Ki’itsu’s question surely aroused a similar reaction from Risai, for she drew her brows in obvious displeasure.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I apologize.” Ki’itsu hung his head. “I trust Risai-sama, and Kyoshi and Houto too. I don’t believe you are lying. Without any reason to harbor doubts, it never occurred to me to ask why the Taiho was not with you. However, Jokan-sama reprimanded me for not confirming the details.”
“So Jokan-sama has his doubts?”
“No, well, that’s now how I would phrase it.” Flustered, Ki’itsu groped for the right words. His shoulders slumped in resignation. “No, I’m not sure how to say this.”
He wrung his hands for a long moment as he organized his thoughts. He raised his head. “Risai-sama, in fact, an urgent dispatch arrived from a Taoist temple in Zui Province. It seems too preposterous to believe, but—”
Ki’itsu nodded. “Asen has been chosen as emperor and the enthronement will soon take place.”
Risai stared at him in utter disbelief. “Nonsense!” she exclaimed. “That is impossible!”
Kyoshi and Houto exchanged glance. The bewilderment was clear on Houto’s face as well.
Houto said, “In the past, he was often described as the provisional emperor. It was said he would formally be made emperor, though no actual enthronement took place. Is that what we’re talking about here?”
Kyoshi seconded Houto’s summation. Asen’s imminent accession had once been all everybody talked about. As a matter of fact, upon the abdication of the rightful emperor, a provision emperor often filled the role. Whether a formal ceremony resembling an enthronement took place was up to him. But the intention to accede to the throne was made public.
In Asen’s case, though rumors of his imminent accession abounded, no actual announcement was ever forthcoming. In the past, no one understood why. But now they did. Because Gyousou hadn’t passed away, the provision emperor could not possibly be officially acknowledged as the actual emperor.
In any event, whenever the kingdom wished to do something officially, an official proclamation was required, and that proclamation must bear the Imperial Seal. Even if the document was prepared and signed by a scribe, it still must carry the Imperial Seal, that only the emperor could use and none other than the rightful emperor could apply. When the right emperor died, the engraved impression on the seal disappeared, leaving a smooth surface behind.
As a result, during the era of an empty throne, the seal was unusable. The feet of the White Pheasant from the prior dynasty, it having uttered its final cry, were used instead. Kyoshi had heard that when the feet were removed from the dead White Pheasant, over time they turned to gold and were used instead of the Imperial Seal.
Except the White Pheasant hadn’t uttered its final cry, and remained in full possession of its feet. Neither had the Imperial Seal lost its mark. Asen had no way to apply the seal to anything. In short, Asen could not make any kind of official proclamation. That was why he hadn’t formally assumed the post of provisional emperor.
But Ki’itsu shook his head. “Not the provisional emperor. The new emperor. We heard the Taiho chose Asen as the new emperor and the official enthronement will take place in the near future. Risai-sama, surely this information must be mistaken.”
“Of course, it’s mistaken,” Risai declared. “The Taiho can’t possibly be in Kouki and couldn’t possibly have chosen Asen as the emperor. The emperor of Tai is Gyousou-sama. That hasn’t changed. There is no reason for a new emperor.”
Kyoshi nodded. This was another deception concocted by Asen. What evil schemes must the man be dreaming up this time? Just then, horrible misgivings flashed across Kyoshi’s mind.
They did not know where Gyousou was. But as long as he was safe wherever he was, there was no need for a new emperor. But what if—
The same thought must have crossed Houto’s mind. He said in an agitated voice, “Risai-sama, you don’t think it possible that something happened to Gyousou-sama?”
Risai drew a sharp breath. “He couldn’t have!”
If the White Pheasant had fallen, with Hakkei Palace under his thumb, Asen could do whatever he wished with the bird’s feet. Heaven would surely not bestow its blessings on him, so Asen calling himself the new emperor were empty words. But he could officially seat himself upon the throne.
Kyoshi turned these thoughts over in his mind. Houto said, a taut expression on his face, “I am going to run this information by the shin’nou guild. They should be able to confirm whatever truth there might be behind the rumors.”
Before anyone could respond, Risai jumped to her feet. “I’m going to Kouki.”
“Risai-sama!” Kyoshi exclaimed, his voice rising. “That’s far too dangerous!”
“We have to get to the bottom of this.”
“If you insist, I will go. This isn’t something you can do. The risks are too high.”
“I have Hien. I can find out a lot faster.”
“No. That is one place you cannot go.”
“Wait, please.” A flustered Ki’itsu said, “The temples in the Sekirin Temple circuit know more about what’s going on in Kouki than anyone around.”
“One of the temples that belongs to the Tensan school.”
“The ones that distribute the hakushi—the white ribbons—as amulets that guarantee protection during the pilgrimage?”
Ki’itsu nodded. “The head temple is here in Rin’u. The region between Rin’u and Hakurou is home to many shrines, especially those associated with Sekirin Temple. However, due to certain regrettable circumstances, my colleagues and I cannot make direct inquiries at Sekirin Temple. I suspect you would have better luck.”
That statement was met with curious looks from his audience.
“It pains me to say so, but the temples in the Zui’un circuit and the temples in the Sekirin circuit are not on the best of terms.”
“Where in Rin’u is Sekirin Temple?”
“On top of a mountain to the northeast. Sekirin Temple devotes itself to ascetic practice and the pursuit of knowledge. However, only adherents and disciples are allowed on the premises. There are several branch temples in Rin’u. I think it best you visit one of them first.”
“We will certainly see what they have to offer.” Risai said to Houto, “In the meantime, Houto, please find out what you can from the shin’nou guild.”