16-6 The New Year dawned in Kouki. In normal times, a number of events should have accompanied the occasion. Asen’s Imperial Court had nothing on the schedule. What with Asen’s designation as the new emperor, there were expectations in the air about the old and established traditions being revived. But the day came and went with not even the Festival of the Winter Solstice taking place.
As usual, nothing has changed at all, thought Chou’un as he made his way to the Rikkan Privy Council chamber. But on that day, a surprise was waiting for him.
When Chou’un entered the Outer Palace, he should have been greeted by the heads of the six ministries, kneeling on the ground awaiting his arrival. Instead, all that met him were courteous nods and confused glances. The reason became apparent when he turned his attention to the throne. The normally empty throne was enclosed by a bamboo blind.
Meaning Asen had made an appearance.
Chou’un hurriedly found his place before the throne. Someone had again snuck into the Rokushin. This time, at the conclusion of his investigation, Shukuyou pointed his finger at Taiki’s Daiboku, Kouryou. Upon receipt of this information, Chou’un intended to put forward a proposal about how to deal with Taiki at the Rikkan Privy Council meeting.
Taiki could not be allowed to carry on in such a flagrant manner. His contempt for the majesty of the Imperial Court was no different than disrespecting Asen himself. Not even the actions of the Saiho could be casually overlooked.
Chou’un was confident he could convince the Rikkan to have Taiki further confined to quarters while he reflected upon his boorish behavior. Given that not only had intruders entered the Rokushin and contacted the criminals housed there, but the guards on duty had been killed, it should be an easy argument to make.
The ministers of the Rikkan had more and more often of late demonstrated a willingness to take Chou’un to task while treating Taiki with kid gloves. Chou’un was determined to put an end to this exasperating state of affairs. It was long past time he put his foot down.
That thought on his mind, a gong rang, accompanied by movement inside the bamboo blinds and the sense of someone stepping onto the raised platform. The gong rang a second time, a signal for those in attendance to bow low to the floor. The blinds lifted. His hands still planted on the floor, Chou’un raised his head.
And gaped in astonishment. Not only Asen was sitting there, but the Saiho as well. Here was a sight that should have become commonplace by now but he had never seen before.
According to custom, and feeling compelled to say something, Chou’un opened his mouth and was about to speak when Asen silenced him.
“As all of you know by now, the Taiho has returned. He has been busy convalescing from a serious wound, but we must start thinking about the enthronement.”
A murmur arose from among the assembled ministers.
“I have for too long neglected my political duties. I felt that those responsibilities could be left to my highly capable ministers. But I am afraid they have not proved as competent as I expected.”
At the sound of Asen’s cool tone of voice, the momentarily elated ministers sank back into a pensive silence.
“The current state of affairs must be corrected. Starting with Keitou.”
Keitou was there in the entourage, at the foot of the podium opposite Chou’un. Hearing his name, Keitou faced Asen and bowed.
“In accordance with Taiki’s nomination, you are hereby appointed prime minister of Zui Province. Political conditions in Zui are in an intolerable state. Please assist the Taiho in correcting this shameful situation.”
“I will do my utmost to comply with your wishes.”
Chou’un felt his spine stiffen. He broke out in a cold sweat.
“I am giving Chou’un and the ministers of the Rikkan one last chance. I am confident in your abilities as accomplished civil servants and am granting you the authority concomitant with your portfolios. Going forward, I wish to see that trust rewarded with tangible results.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” they responded with bowed heads.
That long dreaded moment had arrived. Chou’un felt a cold knot in his gut. The accusation of incompetence came as an unexpected shock, but he could say nothing in reply. Raising objections and making excuses before the majestic presence of the throne was unforgiveable.
I could get cut off.
If he didn’t do something, Asen might label him useless too and cast him aside.
One last chance, Asen said. Another blunder and the fear of getting summarily put out to pasture would become very real. And it all started with Taiki’s return. No, it all could be traced back to the incompetence of the Rikkan.
“Every last one of them,” Chou’un growled as he hurried back to his office. “Every last one of them is only looking out for himself. Those incompetents dragging me down should try seeing things from my perspective for once.”
“Most certainly,” Ansaku agreed politely. “No matter how skilled the Chousai, if those ministers holding critical positions in the Rikkan don’t do the work, then the job of governance simply won’t get done.”
“Indeed.” Chou’un gave his chair a kick, spun around, and flopped down on the seat. “If we don’t do something about those idiots, my reputation will suffer too. I should show the whole lot of them the door.”
“I wonder if that is the best approach to the problem. As I am sure you are aware, the Chousai could catch considerable backlash in the process.” After that gentle criticism, Ansaku said in more flattering tones, “His Highness did offer them one more chance. I am sure this time the ministers were left quaking in their boots. If they are truly serious about good governance, they will want to contribute to the Chousai’s achievements.”
“Do they even possess the ability to make such contributions?”
Isn’t your whole job to make sure that they do? Ansaku thought to himself. “Initiating the next round of personnel selections may be a good place to start. Explain that in times of crisis, having positions up for replacement picked out in advance will serve as a bulwark against any coming confusion in the political process. That may well be the most effective approach.”
“The ministers in the Rikkan are going to complain, in any case.”
“And when they do, tell them it is time for them to put their true abilities on display. Call it a teaching moment.”
“A teaching moment,” Chou’un echoed with a grin. “Of course.”
“We must cultivate a fresh crop of assistant ministers for the good of the Imperial Court. Having worthy candidate ministers singled out beforehand will prepare us for any future eventuality. The ministers of the Rikkan can no longer get away with cutting corners. That sword will always be hanging over their heads.”
“An effective threat.” Chou’un chuckled, his mood improving. “If they fall down on the job, someone will be waiting in the wings to replace them.”
“It doesn’t much matter how they take it personally. What’s important is that the ministers respond to your requests and work devotedly to accomplish them.” Ansaku concluded with a respectful bow, “The ministers of the Rikkan should be burning the midnight oil on behalf of the Chousai.”
“Yes, they should,” Chou’un said with a self-satisfied nod.