eitou’s appointment as provincial prime minister left Kouryou with decidedly mixed feelings. That evening after returning to his quarters, all the accumulated anxiety felt like a heavy weight pressing down on his chest.
Keitou had done well. Of all the mandarins in the Imperial Palace, he alone served Taiki with integrity and good faith.
“But he is one of Asen’s retainers.”
Kourou threw himself onto his bed and crossed his arms beneath his head. Somewhere in the attic above his head, a dove was cooing a faint and melancholy song.
Asen’s retainers struck down Gyousou and stole the throne.
All the suffering endured by the people and by Kouryou and his colleagues could be laid at the feet of Asen. He didn’t know what role Keitou played in the usurpation, but no matter how earnestly he served Taiki now, that didn’t erase those past sins. Hadn’t Asen tried to kill Taiki in the first place?
Did Keitou know what was in the offing? If so, why didn’t he stop Asen? If he had no idea, why didn’t he condemn Asen when he found out? Kouryou would have understood if Keitou had denounced Asen and then parted ways, something he had not yet done.
What was Taiki thinking when he made Keitou prime minister?
Kouryou couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge Keitou. Nor could he get on board with publicly proclaiming Asen’s enthronement. Doing so felt akin to declaring that Gyousou was no longer the emperor. How could Taiki—the first among Gyousou’s retainers—have made such a proposal?
The way he spoke about Gyousou as well.
The calculating and coldhearted words he used. Even if it was all an act in order to deceive Chou’un, his choice of language struck Kouryou as more cruel than necessary.
A cold chill ran down his back. Could Taiki possibly be telling the truth? Those doubts had plagued Kouryou’s thoughts of late. Taiki told Asen what Asen wanted to hear so he could act on behalf of Gyousou. But had the Divine Will truly changed? Was that why he said Heaven told him to change course and why he headed to Kouki?
Did that also explain the ritual Taiki conducted every morning? Tokuyuu said he was praying to the gods, but Kouryou couldn’t help thinking he was praying for Asen. He would run all these questions by Taiki if he only had the opportunity. Shouwa was never far from Taiki’s side. She’d recently brought in two more court maids to work alternate shifts. They only answered to her and Kouryou did not dare trust them with any confidences.
Maybe everything was part and parcel of Taiki’s deception. Or maybe the exact opposite. Maybe his words and actions weren’t a feint or a subterfuge. Maybe they were the truth. And maybe Kouryou had only deceived himself into believing that Asen was the one being fooled.
His head felt like it was filled with lead. All that accumulated weariness. Thanks to Yari, he could retire to his own quarters at night. But the days of camping out in the main hall and snatching cat naps here and there had gone on for too long. All those moments of fatigue accumulated like dust until they thickened into clods of mud.
He’d come to believe more and more that they should have stuck with Risai.
Overcome by the gloom and melancholy, he dozed off and woke the next morning at daybreak. His head throbbed like a bad hangover and his limbs felt like they were encased in a spider’s web. All his senses felt dulled down and at a distant remove. He sluggishly got dressed and headed to the main hall. About the time he entered the building, the dullness finally began to clear, though that numb sensation occupying his brain didn’t change.
He wandered into the living room, where Taiki was already up and about. He had just finished eating. Shouwa was clearing away the dishes.
Taiki still did not have complete use of his left hand and required an assistant for many everyday tasks. Tokuyuu and Juntatsu had taken turns filling this role, but Tokuyuu hadn’t show up for the past two days. His room in the inner courtyard was empty and bare. Bun’en as well was incommunicado.
Taiki was understandably quite concerned.
Kouryou acknowledged the two of them with a bow. Taiki said, “Something the matter? You look a bit gray.”
Kouryou casually sidestepped the question. He said instead, “I don’t know what is on the Taiho’s mind these days—”
Taiki responded with a puzzled look. Kouryou clamped his mouth shut. Having openly voiced his misgivings, he wasn’t sure how to walk those words back.
“Ah, you’re referring to Keitou.”
Kouryou didn’t answer. Shouwa cast him a sidelong glance. Kouryou said to her, “Would you mind waiting outside?”
Shouwa looked at Taiki with upturned eyes. “Is that all right? Do you need anything?”
“No,” Taiki said with a smile. “That’s all right. The two of us just need a moment of privacy. Kouryou would like to get something off his chest.”
Shouwa nodded with obvious reluctance. She gathered up the tableware and departed. Taiki watched her through the windows until she had exited the inner courtyard before turning back to Kouryou.
“How about you accompany me for a little stroll around the garden?”
Taiki called out to Yari, “We’d like the place for ourselves. No visitors for now.”
Taiki left through the rear entrance to the main hall. Patches of ice covered the pond. The stands of peach and plum trees had shed their leaves. The bare branches sparkled with frost.
Taiki crossed a small bridge over the pond and continued down a narrow path surrounded by wintry vistas. From the back of the pond, the path wound among the snow-covered boulders and up a switchback stairway. From there, they climbed to a pavilion adjacent a waterfall. Even the water tumbling over the stony surface sounded cold.
The pavilion felt no warmer. The spray from the waterfall froze on the boulders, forming columns of glimmering icicles. The pillars of the pavilion and the encompassing pony wall did little to block the wind or the chill.
“Aren’t you cold?” Kouryou asked.
“It is on the brisk side.” Taiki grinned. “But here we can talk without worrying about being overheard by anybody.”
Taiki nodded. “I take it you’re not happy with me making Keitou the prime minister.”
Kouryou hung his head. Their walk in the cold morning air had cleared away most of the numbness filling his senses. He felt fully awake for perhaps the first time that day. And now with his mind clear, he regretted the thoughtlessness of his earlier remarks.
“I apologize for that. I said too much.”
“I completely understand how you would have mixed feelings about Keitou. But there is no one else with his qualifications I trust to fill the position. I hope you understand where I am coming from as well.”
“Yes,” Kouryou said with a nod. From the start, Taiki had no staff or roster of personnel to work with. His hands really were tied in that respect.
“I needed an ally to serve in the position of provincial prime minister. You would have been fine. So would Juntatsu. But I’m pretty sure you would reject such an appointment without a second thought.”
“Naturally.” He wasn’t about to hand off responsibility for Taiki’s personal protection to anyone else but Yari.
“And Juntatsu is a doctor through and through. He probably knows less about politics than I do. Unfortunately, that’s about the size of my candidate pool. I really need more trustworthy advisors and counselors.”
“I understand that perfectly well. I really do apologize.”
“And I grasp as well the burdens you are bearing. Of course, you’re not going to be happy with every decision and development. If you do have any concerns weighing on your mind, don’t let them fester. Spit them out.” Taiki added with a mischievous grin, “Just don’t spit them out inside the villa.”
Kouryou faced the waterfall and finally said, “Taiho, please answer me this one question. Is Asen the emperor?”
Taiki’s eye widened, as if startled by the inquiry. He lowered his head and thought it over for a long minute.
“Soon after I returned from Hourai, Risai told me what happened. There was a traitor among Gyousou-sama’s retainers, someone secretly communicating with Asen.”
“And that would be Rousan-sama.”
“Can we say there is only one?”
Asked straight out like that, Kouryou did not have a ready reply. To be sure, if Rousan betrayed Gyousou, there certainly could be others.
“When I was debating with myself whether to part ways with Risai and return to the palace, I made another resolution as well. Except for those I could prove to my own satisfaction were not traitors, I would trust no one.”
“Those you could prove to you own satisfaction—”
“Risai, to start with. Risai risked her life traveling to the Kingdom of Kei to save my life. If she were somehow allied with Asen, she’d have no reason to do such a thing. It’d be far more convenient for Asen if I had simply stayed in Hourai.”
In a quieter voice he added, “If I had stayed in Hourai, I would likely be dead by now. Perhaps Asen discovered through unknown means that I had contracted the esui. Had I died in Hourai, a new kirin would have been born. In due time, that kirin would choose a new emperor. According to that logic, Asen dispatched Risai to save me and bring me back.”
“Wait a minute. You would carry your suspicions that far?”
“Calling them suspicions is not entirely correct. I am only considering the possibilities. Because I simply cannot afford to fail.” Taiki smiled a sad smile. “I met Risai for the first time on Mount Hou and truly took a liking to her. It was Risai who put everything on the line to rescue me from Hourai. Words cannot express how happy I was and how grateful I am to her. But that by itself does not exclude the possibility that she could also be communicating with Asen, and as I have explained, that is why she came to my rescue.”
Kouryou was dumbfounded. Yes, such a possibility existed. The pure logic of the proposition was undeniable. But weren’t kirin creatures of empathy and compassion? Were they even capable of such stone-cold reasoning?
“However, I set aside such possibilities when we left Sekijou. To start with, after I returned from Hourai, so many things took place that Asen never could have expected or foreseen. And observing Risai’s reactions to them, I found it difficult to believe that she was in any way conspiring with Asen. On top of that, Risai let me leave Sekijou unaccompanied by herself. If she’d been ordered by Asen to apprehend me, she would not have so readily allowed me to slip out of her hands.”
Taiki shook his head and said with a faint smile, “Then again, if I wanted to find reasons to doubt, I could doubt even the outcome of those actions. So I decided to trust Risai. If she turned out to be on Asen’s side, well, that would be my loss.”
Kouryou was too startled to speak.
“Having chosen to trust Risai, I could trust you as well. Meeting you and Kyoshi was a complete coincidence. It would simply be impossible to stage the whole thing in advance, you and Kyoshi and the people to Touka. You and Risai are not my enemies. I could believe that much.”
“I’m happy to hear that. What about Ganchou-sama? No, Ganchou-sama is a difficult case. How about Bun’en or—?”
“I don’t trust anybody in the Imperial Palace. This kingdom is afflicted by that illness. Sure, I trust Bun’en in so far as his character goes, but I cannot tell if he has succumbed or not. Well, I couldn’t. Recently, I think I’ve gotten a better grasp of what this illness constitutes. I don’t know what causes the phenomenon itself, but the changes that Tokuyuu and Heichuu exhibited are likely typical of the symptoms.”
Kouryou felt a start of recognition. Of course, he thought. The loss of ambition, the dazed outlook on life—those were the symptoms.
“I believe you are right.”
“Heichuu was reassigned, apparently to the Rokushin. Tokuyuu stopped showing up. They are probably waiting on Asen hand and foot as we speak.”
Kouryou nodded. Entirely possible.
“At this point, I am more confident about being able to tell who is ill and who is not. That’s helped to let down my guard a bit. Before that, I had no idea, which is why I absolutely could not trust anyone but you and Risai. That hasn’t changed. I thought I could trust Bun’en and Juntatsu, but not after the past few days. As things stand now, they may have succumbed. They’ve been out of contact for long enough that I think we should assume something happened to them.”
“To tell the truth, I’ve been harboring suspicions about you too, Kouryou.”
Kouryou nodded. “I know what you’re talking about. I really can’t explain it well myself, but now and then my mind falls into a complete muddle. The strange thing is, when I meet with you, the fog always seems to lift. If you are close by, everything becomes crystal clear.”
Taiki nodded. “It was the same with Tokuyuu. His condition improved when he was around me. And when he wasn’t, and especially at night, he got much worse. This illness grows stronger after sunset and it may abhor kirin.”
“It abhors kirin—”
“Be that as it may,” Taiki said, “I cannot say anything of a sensitive nature when others might overhear. I know you’ve been beside yourself with worry. I’m sorry for causing you so much concern.”
“Oh, you’ve no need to apologize to me.”
Taiki shook his head and grinned. “But did you ever doubt that Gyousou-sama was the emperor?”
“Gyousou-sama is the emperor,” Taiki said in a low but distinct voice.
The wave of relief washed over Kouryou with such force that it almost brought him to his knees.
“I would not have suspected that even Kouryou harbored such doubts.”
“Yes, I know. Inexcusable on my part.”
Kouryou then asked Taiki frankly if the ritual he performed every morning when he came to the arbor in the pavilion and faced the north was on behalf of Asen.
Taiki looked back at him, the surprise evident on his face. He remained silent for a while before answering.
“You really were questioning everything too, weren’t you?”
“Tokuyuu said you were probably praying for the welfare of the people.”
Taiki again did not answer for a while. Then he said with a small smile, “Sort of, but not quite. To be sure, Asen resides in the Inner Palace to the north. Except keep on going in that same direction and won’t you eventually arrive at Bun Province?”
Kouryou almost groaned aloud. The pieces fell into place. Every day, Taiki prayed on behalf of Risai, who had continued on to Bun Province, and Gyousou, who had disappeared there.
“I really do apologize.”
“Your explanations probably make for more plausible lies. I’d call that a good thing.”
“Then all of this really is one big charade?”
“It’s hard for me to imagine a more audacious fabrication.”
Taiki answered with a wry grin. “I said I had a plan, didn’t I?”
“But I really am surprised. No matter how good a job you did convincing Asen and his whole lot, what would you have done if someone refused to go along? What if they rejected the whole thing out of hand as simply too fantastic to believe?”
“Well, if such obstacles popped up, I would think up ways around them too.”
In fact, Taiki was confident that the explanations he’d laid out so far would pass muster. Because only the kirin could vouch for the value of the Divine Will. No one else in this world comprehended the actual essence of the Divine Will. Even the emperor himself had no choice but consent to the Divine Will as the kirin defined it.
The manifestation of the Divine Will itself was closer to instinct or intuition. No miracles took place. No voice echoed down from Heaven. The thought only occurred to the kirin that this is the person. Nothing more.
Elevating what was at best a hunch or a feeling to the holy realms of the Divine Will defined the very existence of the kirin. The kirin was at heart a beast that also possessed a human form. He was born on a single tree on Mount Hou, subjugated the youma as his shirei, and exhibited many supernatural abilities. The existence of the kirin defied the normal constraints of the world, so much so that the reasonable conclusion was that Heaven had designed them that way.
When that miraculous existence identified it as such, what began as a mere hunch materialized as the Divine Will. Because the kirin said so, that’s how it was taken. And so it followed that the Divine Will was whatever the kirin said it was.
In any event, the people of Taiki must be saved before winter arrived in full force. They had to find the way to survive the winter. Asen first had to be convinced to stop abandoning his subjects and provide whatever support he could, starting, if necessary, with the bare minimum.
“I had to return to the Imperial Palace for the good of the people. For whatever reason, I lost my connection to Gyousou-sama’s imperial aura. But Risai and the rest are searching for him.”
At the same time, it was possible that Gyousou was being held in the Imperial Palace. If so, there would be no way to confirm that without being in the Imperial Palace, and certainly no way of saving him. Someone had to go in there and look for him.
When Taiki laid all this out, Kouryou grunted in admiration. “You are definitely right about that.”
“If Gyousou-sama was being detained outside the palace, it’d also be easier to access information about him from inside the palace. If we ascertained his whereabouts, we could then let Risai know. Since they’ve been finding shelter in the Taoist temples along the way, we should be able to get in touch with them through the temple network. And at the same time, lend Risai support from within the palace. I couldn’t do anything if I was with Risai right now. And all the extra work guarding me was a constant drag on the mission. Perhaps more importantly, whether or not there was any substance to all these possibilities, I believed my place was here in the Imperial Palace.”
“The safest and surest way in was to claim that Asen was the new emperor. With that claim as my collateral, he couldn’t very well kill me. Far from it. He couldn’t abandon the people or continue the cruel purges for fear of bringing on the shitsudou. Any reason Asen had for continuing the purges should have vanished as well.”
Taiki paused and sighed. “That’s how I expected the situation to unfold.”
The state of affairs inside the Imperial Palace turned out to be far stranger than Taiki expected. He still did not understand how things had gotten so far out of kilter. Asen demonstrated not the slightest enthusiasm for the role of emperor even on the subject of his enthronement.
Though the constraints on Taiki’s authority had finally loosened and he could begin to act, Chou’un and his faction effectively blocked Keitou’s efforts to promote the Taiho’s agenda. Their constant interference only ensured that nothing worked as it should. They ended up accomplishing the equivalent of nothing as the snow piled up. At this rate, none of their efforts expended on behalf of the people would take effect in time.
In the meantime, he had no idea what Risai and the others were up to in their search for Gyousou. None of their activities had come to anyone’s attention here in the capital. A good thing, because getting noticed by the wrong people could doom all of them. That’s what Taiki told himself, except the lack of news left him all the more fit to be tied.
With the Imperial Palace frozen in amber, at the very least, Taiki hoped to motivate Asen to act in the best interests of his subjects.
“Anyway, this is a good opportunity to bring up another subject with you.”
“What would that be?”
“The way things stand right now, we are getting nowhere on the welfare front. I want to arrange a meeting with Asen.”
Kouryou furrowed his brows. “A meeting?”
Back when Taiki was a child, Seirai, his provincial chief cabinet secretary, often used “shortcuts” that took the back alleyways through the Imperial Palace. In fact, there were plenty of quicker and shorter routes from here to there. But taking the long way around reduced the odds of running into the wrong person, getting collared by an eager bureaucrat, and wasting a lot of time. By that definition, there were always more efficient ways of getting around.
Along with this explanation, Taiki said, “According to my memories from back then, one of those shortcuts led to the Rokushin. Following the path from there to here, I believe I can get to Asen’s living quarters.”
“What you’re talking about is too dangerous!”
“Why is that?”
“What if you were found out by the guards?”
“That would hardly matter, would it? Of course, if I got caught, I’d probably be removed from the premises before meeting Asen. But all in all, the Saiho shouldn’t be forbidden from setting foot anywhere in the Imperial Palace.”
According to the preferences of the emperor, there was the practice of restricting access to rooms in the Inner Palace used by his wife or mistress, a practice defined by the rules of etiquette, not law. The kirin also respected those informal boundaries in regards to the Inner Palace. However, members of the bureaucracy, the Chousai included, were not allowed to enter the Rokushin without the permission of the emperor.
Neither could the emperor, in turn, enter Jinjuu Manor without permission from the kirin who lived there. Not because of a written statue—it wasn’t like anybody was going to arrest the emperor for trespassing in any case—but due to longstanding custom followed so faithfully it had gained the weight of law. This mattered because of the conflicts bound to arise between the emperor and kirin during the closing years of a dynasty.
But such restrictions did not apply to the kirin. The throne was only the emperor’s because the kirin gave it to him. The same could even be said of the Imperial Palace.
“I guess that is true.”
“So I thought I’d go see for myself. By the way, not paying Asen a visit is out of the question.”
“Understood. I’ll go with you.”
“No.” Taiki smiled. “You won’t be much good as a bodyguard if Asen’s guards lock you away.”
“I really would be in trouble if we got split up like that. I know how unbearable it must be, but please be patient. I’ll go by myself.