12-5 Speaking in a soft voice, Ki’itsu explained the background behind the rift. “Zui’un Temple was the first to get caught up in the purges. That’s when it started.”
They were on their way to a Sekirin Temple shrine, one of several Taoist temples conveniently located not far from the safe house.
“The Taoist temples in Kou Province agreed that Asen’s claims deserved a closer examination. Hearing the rumors, Sekirin Temple put a stop to it. It was too dangerous, they said. At the time, nobody understood what was so dangerous about a public inquiry into such a matter.”
“Common sense was on their side,” Kyoshi agreed. He and the rest of the people directly involved hadn’t sensed the slightest need for any such concerns.
“Nevertheless, the head priestess at Sekirin Temple—Moku’u-sama—insisted it was and refused to provide any direct assistance to Zui’un Temple in regards to the matter. Zui’un Temple did not heed this warning. And as a result—”
Out of consideration for Kyoshi, Ki’itsu left the rest of the sentence unsaid.
“I can’t remember any such counsel ever reaching our ears, not even rumors to that effect. I suspect our superiors didn’t think the issue was serious enough to warrant their further attention. At the time, I would have probably dismissed such concerns as people spouting off about strange stories and the like.”
On Ki’itsu’s advice, Kyoshi set aside his monk’s robes for the first time in a long while and borrowed a more conventional coat and cloak from Houto. This clothing was certainly warmer, though wearing it left him feeling a bit out of sorts.
“At the time, none of us would have been surprised if our inquiry resulted in a rockier relationship with the kingdom, but we never imagined we were risking our lives.”
“A totally natural reaction, and after the tragedy struck Zui’un Temple, all the more reason for the associated temples in Bun Province to wonder what Sekirin Temple knew and what led them to conclude we were pursuing a dangerous course.”
Sekirin Temple had long kept its fingers on the pulse of the latest goings on in Kouki. A big reason was that, in the beginning, Emperor Kyou himself favored the Tensan sect. Though it later distanced itself from Emperor Kyou, it enjoyed a long history of imperial patronage.
Moreover, Sekiran Temple had distinguished itself from the start by rejecting the teachings and practices of other Buddhist and Taoist institutions. In basic terms, employing the technology and medicinal rites that sprang from the development of herbal medicines, those temples and monasteries earnestly served their adherents.
In appreciation, their adherents visited the temples and gave alms. In other words, the growth of these temples and monasteries was a product of their close relations with the laity.
But as far as Sekirin Temple was concerned, the purpose of Taoism was to master the creeds and doctrines. In order to accomplish that, they prioritized the pursuit of knowledge and ascetic practice above all else.
“I wouldn’t say they were wrong, but—”
But their lack of discretion too often culminated in claims that other sects were “currying favor with the laity in order to line their pockets.” Criticisms of this sort couldn’t help but arouse bad feelings, especially from those who insisted that serving the people was the essence of Taoism.
Sekirin Temple making light of those actives and rejecting out of hand religious teachings at odds with its own only prompted their critics to declare in rebuttal that what they were preaching was not true Taoism.
“The antagonism has been there all along. Except that and the way Sekirin Temple privileges its own doctrines over everything else in no way accounts for why it should be so familiar with conditions in Kouki. The explanation inevitably offered up is that if the other sects curry favor with the people, well, then Sekirin Temple curries favor with the powerful.”
“I don’t suppose the critics are ever going to stop reminding everybody they once enjoyed Emperor Kyou’s patronage.”
“Unfortunately, no,” Ki’itsu said, his shoulders slumping. “And because of that antagonism, Sekirin Temple refused to participate in the inquiry initiated by Zui’un Temple. After the purges, more misguided rumors began to circulate.”
“Namely that Sekirin Temple was in Asen’s back pocket?”
Observing the unscathed temples in the Sekirin circuit, such cutting comments were common among the survivors of the other sects who endured such enormous sacrifices. The rumors took on a life of their own. Because Sekiran Temple had been joined at the hip with the dynasty of Emperor Kyou, people expected they were on equally friendly terms with Asen.
“This notion that those connections persisted after Emperor Kyou and then reattached themselves once again to Asen is nothing more than rash speculation.”
“Ah, because Gyousou-sama was essentially the opposite of Emperor Kyou, that makes Asen the new Emperor Kyou?”
“Something like that. Having thrived under the patronage of Emperor Kyou, Sekirin Temple must have the secret support of Asen. For every person who harbors such suspicions, there are those who go even further and assert that Sekirin Temple was behind the destruction of Zui’un Temple.”
“In light of all this, how would you characterize the actual state of affairs?” Risai asked.
Ki’itsu waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “It is so much nonsense. I do not believe that Sekirin Temple is conspiring with Asen. The patronage of Emperor Kyou is a story that belongs to the past. It has nothing to do with Moku’u-sama, the current head priestess. Moku’u-sama has always been a woman of deep and abiding faith, a person of great character.”
But having long ago split into warring camps, with careless people on both sides striking out with thoughtless words, the deep rift between Sekirin Temple and the other sects showed no signs of ever healing today.
“Jokan-sama is profoundly distressed by the situation, but a clumsy attempt to bridge the divide could result in a stray word or action being taken wrong, and end up making everything worse. I have no doubt the other side is of the same mind. The safest course for the time being is simply to have nothing to do with other.”
“There are many kinds of Taoist temples,” Risai observed.
Ki’itsu said with a wry smile, “Because, in the end, a congregation consists of the people who show up. However, the fact remains that Sekirin Temple possesses a keen understanding of the conditions in the capital. I believe that’s because personal connections forged during the dynasty of Emperor Kyou continue to bear fruit. I don’t think there will be a problem as long as we leave Zui’un Temple and Fukyuu Temple out of the discussion.”
Ki’itsu came to a halt at that point. At the far end of the road ahead sat a small shrine, its gate open.
“I will wait for you here.”
The scale of the shrine was fairly limited. The shrine itself centered on the worship of religious icons. The attached buildings surrounded a courtyard. The number of worshippers in attendance suggested it had many adherents. The smoke from the incense offerings collected in a thin white cloud over the snow-covered courtyard.
Kyoshi and Risai bought incense sticks from an old woman at a table set up at the front gate and proceeded directly to the inner shrine where they performed the offering ritual. As best they could tell, the shrine was dedicated to the Ten Kings of Hell who judged the sins of the dead.
Observing the line of statues, Risai said in a small voice, “I wonder if most of the people here are followers of Sekirin Temple.”
Kyoshi smiled. “Not necessarily so.”
People came there to pray on their own behalf. They chose the god to fit the prayer. One of the primary missions of a Taoist temple was to create a place where people could connect with the divine. A shrine in the Zui’un Temple circuit would also have a pharmacy on the premises, but such facilities were not found here.
“I never heard of Sekirin Temple in Jou or Zui Province.”
“I don’t think there are any branch temples in Kou Province either. As I recall, there are quite a few between Bun Province and Ba Province.”
“I used to think that all Taoist temples were pretty much the same.”
“I don’t think that would be an entirely wrong conclusion to jump to.”
Based on the history of the Kingdom of Tai, and on the number of institutions and adherents, the Zui’un Temple school defined the meaning of Taoism. Even in the temples of the Zui’un Temple circuit, doctrinal differences and different denominations had inevitably arisen. But it’d be fair to say that the foundational beliefs remained largely the same.
However, the Zui’un Temple school did not encompass the entirety of Taoist belief in Tai. Many competing sects arose out of theological rifts with Zui’un Temple. Among all those that sprang to life and subsequently disappeared, more than a few achieved a sufficient size and significance to leave their mark on history.
The pilgrims themselves changed not at all. For every pious and zealous worshipper, there was a temple tourist who appeared more interested in seeing the sights and having a jolly good time of it.
Here and there in the crowd were temple visitors dressed in white. Zui’un Temple eschewed white robes, meaning they likely belonged to Sekirin Temple. One or two had on brown habits, probably indicating their higher status.
Kyoshi approached one of the acolytes dressed in white. “Excuse me, but we heard that coming here was a good way to find out what’s going on in Kouki.”
The middle-aged acolyte stopped and eyed him suspiciously. “Kouki? What do you want to know?”
Kyoshi bit his lip for a moment. “We’ve heard rumors that a new emperor acceded to the throne.”
“Shh—” The acolyte held up a finger while glancing around and said softly, “Where did you hear that?” and with his eyes indicated a corner of the courtyard.
“A rumor we overheard in the city.”
“Nothing more than a rumor. And I’d highly recommend you keep your voice down when bringing up subjects like that.”
“Then you wouldn’t lend much credence to the rumor?”
The expression on the acolyte’s face hardened. “Like I said, nothing but rumors.”
A throaty voice broke into the conversation. “That true?”
They all turned to find a man behind them staring at them with wide eyes. “Just now, weren’t you talking about a new emperor getting enthroned?”
“No. Nothing but idle gossip,” the acolyte said.
Except at that moment, “What’s that?” piped up someone else.
The man glanced over his shoulder at a group of several more men and women. “Seems there’s going to be new emperor.”
Something like a cheer accompanied the startled exclamations. “Really?” a woman said excitedly. “A new emperor?”
Another man answered, “A strange story, isn’t it? Isn’t there already an emperor?”
“A provisional emperor is what I heard. Figures that’s what it was. We will finally have a rightful emperor on the throne.”
“A pretender,” Risai spit out in disgust. “There’s no need for a new emperor. We have a rightful emperor already.”
Risai spoke with such vehemence that everyone around them took a step back, dispirited looks rising to their faces.
“If there’s a rightful emperor, then why isn’t sitting on the throne?”
“If you’re talking about the emperor who was enthroned a bunch of years ago, I heard he died a while back.”
“Yeah, wasn’t he killed in that battle at Kakyou?”
“Now that you mention it, for a while there was a big commotion with everybody running around looking for his body.”
Risai was readying a retort when Kyoshi grabbed her arm and with a look told her to get hold of herself. She clenched her mouth shut and nodded.
“If we’ve got a new emperor, that’s cause for a celebration. Life will finally begin to improve around here.”
“We can only hope that the emperor this time has long reign.”
“That’s for sure. Tai hasn’t been blessed by its emperor of late.”
Catching wind of the boisterous conversation taking place, more voices chimed in and others gathered around.
“What’s going on?”
“What about the emperor?”
“A new emperor? Really?”
“Is that true, Sensei?”
They had finally created enough of an uproar to attract the attention of the authorities. A young monk wearing a brown habit approached them.
“Calm down, please,” he said in an unexpectedly deep voice. “What is this commotion all about?”
That question was met with another flurry of questions about whether these rumors were true of false.
“If true, then in the very near future, we will hear an announcement from the city government office. The imperial standard will also be hoisted above the Rishi. Until then, I recommend exercising a little patience.”
“The selection of an emperor is of the upmost importance to the kingdom. It is not a matter for wild speculation. Superficial despair and superficial delight alike eat away at the peace and calm of the people. In the end, a rumor is like a monster without form or substance. Clear your thoughts and quiet your minds and pray instead for Heaven to watch over us.”
The chastened crowd fell silent. The people milling about quietly went their separate ways.
Kyoshi bowed his head. “I apologize for broaching the subject so rashly and causing a disturbance.”
“This is a place of prayer. The rumors of the world should be left behind in the world.”
“But these are not rumors so easily dismissed,” Risai said in a low voice.
He asked her in turn, with a quizzical tilt of his head, “And where did you hear them?”
“Around the city.”
“I do happen to know that those rumors are not yet circulating in the city.”
“Then do you know where they came from?”
One of the white-robed Taoists raised his voice. “You’re supposed to leave such stories at the gate. Don’t bring them in here. Like Sodou-sama told you—”
“That’s all right,” the young man said. He added with a wave of his hand, “We’re fine here. You can go.”
A sullen expression rising to his face, the white-robed Taoist strode off.
“This way, please,” Sodou said. He led them outside the grounds of the shrine. Treading through the frozen snow, he brought them to a deserted courtyard. There he explained, “Yes, there are rumors to that effect, but not rumors you would easily chance upon in the city. Which means you must have picked up this information through connections with a government official or a temple, perhaps?”
With a glance at Risai, who was keeping mum for the moment, Kyoshi said, “We do apologize. In fact, a certain person at a certain temple to whom we are deeply indebted.”
Sodou looked back at Kyoshi, the follow-up question obvious in his expression.
“We did not come here to make trouble. We would like to keep the name of the temple to ourselves for now. We had heard that bringing up the subject here in Bun Province can cause problems.”
“But of course,” Sodou muttered. “Well, I can’t deny it.’
“So the rumor does exist?”
Sodou nodded. “The Taiho chose the current emperor pro tempore to be the new emperor. That is the substance of the rumor. The official enthronement will take place in the near future.”
“We do not know the current whereabouts of the Taiho right now.”
“What I’ve heard is, he returned to Kouki.”
“That is impossible!” Risai blurted out.
“May I ask why you think it impossible?”
“Because the one who harmed him and exiled him from the Imperial Palace in the first place was Asen!”
“Calm down,” Kyoshi chided her under his breath.
“It’s the truth. The Taiho would not return to the Imperial Palace, home to the enemy that tried to kill him! If Asen captured the Taiho, had him right there in front of him, of course he would try to finish the job. Asen is the enemy who attacked the Taiho, and attempted to assassinate His Highness and steal the throne. He could not possibly be chosen as the new emperor.”
After a moment of thought, Sodou replied, “Except it is Heaven that chooses the emperor.”
Risai caught her breath.
“No matter how much the Taiho may despise the man, if Heaven makes the choice, the Taiho is in no position to raise objections.”
Risai didn’t answer. Because that was the truth. In her heart, she could not admit that Taiki would ever choose Asen. That was what her heart told her head. But until she was willing to acknowledge that Heaven did not care what she thought or felt, she couldn’t allow herself to get carried away by her emotions.
“Moreover, the Taiho has been missing for a long time now. Rumors abound that he passed away. As you stated yourself, no one knows where he is. That he is somewhere is self-evident. But do you know where he is right now?”
“Well, I—” Risai fumbled for the right words. “There is no good reason for a new emperor. Tai has a rightful emperor.”
“The logic is certainly sound,” Sodou agreed with a nod. “But what if that rightful emperor were to pass away?”
“You mean, he died?” Risai asked softly.
Sodou shook his head. “I haven’t heard any rumors to that effect. For good or ill.”
“His Highness not dying is bad luck?”
“Perhaps. I mean no offense, but an emperor is necessary for the welfare of the people. An emperor whose existence no one can verify and who can do nothing for the people is no emperor. Better one who actually occupies the throne and governs on their behalf.”
Risai silently looked back at him, sorrow more than anger filling her eyes. “You are right about that.”
“Mistress,” Kyoshi said.
Risai nodded. “I know. Our disappointment is one thing. The state of affairs in Tai is quite another. If a new emperor is enthroned, even if it is Asen, the people could at least hope to escape the current poverty and distress. Such sentiments are perfectly understandable.” She spoke with her emotions tightly constrained and said with a slight nod to Sodou, “I apologize for causing such a disturbance.”
“Not at all,” Sodou said, bowing in turn. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be of more assistance.”
“Let’s go,” Risai said in barely a whisper and started to walk away.
Kyoshi bowed and followed her. Behind him, Sodou called out, “They’re all nothing more than rumors for now. Don’t lose hope.”
Kyoshi cast a startled glance over his shoulder. Sodou had likely surmised that they were followers or retainers of Gyousou. With a final bow to Kyoshi, as if still trying to size up his intentions, Sodou turned on his heels and proceeded back to the shrine.
What to make of all this? Kyoshi turned the question over in his mind. His eyes trained on Sodou as the brown habit disappeared into the crowd, he caught a glimpse of a woman’s pale face. He craned his head to the side, struck by the feeling he’d seen her before.
“Sorry for losing my composure like that,” Risai said.
Kyoshi collected his thoughts and looked back at her. “Don’t worry about it. It’s only natural you’d get flustered. I am equally at a loss.”
Risai nodded. They left the shrine without another word between them. Ki’itsu was waiting further down the road. Expressions grim, they walked up to him.
“How did it go?”
Risai appeared lost in her thoughts so Kyoshi answered instead. “The rumors are definitely in the wind, though no one can vouch for their authenticity. Sekirin Temple hasn’t come to any definite conclusions either.”
“I see,” Ki’itsu muttered. He pressed his fist lightly against his forehead. “Perhaps we are too late.”
Kyoshi didn’t answer. Not because the rumors couldn’t be confirmed. The more he thought about it, somewhere in his heart, the possibility that Gyousou had died grew more palatable. Otherwise, he couldn’t begin to understand why had Gyousou had remained silent for so long. Likely because he in was in a condition that did not allow him to. He hadn’t recovered from the deep wounds he suffered during the attack. Or in order to remain hidden, he had to remain hovering at the edge of life and death.
Walking back to the safe house, Risai said, “The Taiho can’t be in the Imperial Palace.” Her head hung low, breath puffing out in a white cloud, the words spilled out of her. “If Asen got his hands on the Taiho, this time he wouldn’t let him get away alive.”
“That is for sure.”
“Something must have happened.”
They each sank into a pensive silence. The shadows of twilight fell across the city as they returned to the safe house. Piercing cold arrived along with the setting sun. They breathed a collective sigh of relief when the warm light of the house came into view. Houto must have gotten back already.
Passing through the front door, they found Houto in the living room, and to their surprise, Seishi as well. Seishi was sitting on the floor, his head slumped against a chair. A pained expression on his face, Houto patted his back. A clearly dejected Yotaku looked on.
Of course, Kyoshi thought to himself Seishi must have heard about the rumors from Houto. If the rumors were true, that meant Gyousou had died. This had surely come as a crushing realization.
From Houto’s countenance and the tone of his voice, the shin’nou as well had confirmed the rumors.
“So there is substance to them?” Risai asked.
Houto looked back and forth between Seishi and Risai as if unsure how to speak his mind. “In the end, we are still talking about rumors.”
Seishi raised his head. The distress was clear in his features. “There was a general in Rouan, a general who had suffered severe wounds. The medicines were for him. The demand vanished. Because he died.”
Risai stiffened, her eyes widening in surprise.
Seishi paused for a moment. Then he said, “Risai-sama, the fact of the matter is, we’re talking about His Highness.”