18-5 Chou’un was in a hurry.
How did things come to this?
Asen was showing up at the Privy Council chambers on a regular basis. As per usual, he kept everybody around him at arm’s length. But with Asen himself appearing in the Outer Palace, the ministers took their orders directly from him. Up to this point, Chou’un had ruled over the Imperial Court. Now Asen had stepped back onto the stage and was reasserting his privileges and authority.
Whatever impulse led him to do so, it left Chou’un in a quandary. As the reach of his authority contracted, so did the goods and favors he extracted using that authority. He couldn’t very well tell Asen to ignore that impulse and return to his old ways. What he could do was spread the message around that Asen being the new emperor was a charade cooked up by Taiki.
Except no one listened. People flocked to Taiki. Not only Gyousou’s old retainers but prominent and distinguished administrators began to gather at the provincial offices. At one time or another, Chou’un had dismissed many of them from the Imperial Court. Naturally they now gave him a cold shoulder.
Though they didn’t have the same rank or authority as the Chousai, members of the provincial government ignored Chou’un’s directives and gave not a thought to his status or position or his feelings about anything at all. The imperial ministers ignored Chou’un and went straight over his head to Asen. Even worse, many of them sought out Taiki’s opinion before his own.
Asen had dispatched troops to Bun Province in order to take Gyousou into custody. The unexpected repercussions of this action were felt far and wide.
The civil servants who did not count themselves among Gyousou’s retainers and did not owe their positions to Chou’un’s patronage had accepted the official announcement that Gyousou died at face value. That being the case, they also accepted that, usurper though he may be, Asen was the man sitting on the throne.
But then came word that Gyousou wasn’t dead after all. Asen going to parlay with him meant that Asen had been keeping the rightful emperor under wraps the whole time. This, in turn, aroused animosity toward Asen for proceeding forward with his own enthronement and put more weight in Chou’un’s accusation that Taiki had orchestrated this travesty.
Twisted and distorted like any rumors, these voices ended up bolstering public sentiment on behalf of Gyousou. A consensus began to spread that “Emperor” Asen was Taiki’s creation and Gyousou of course was the true emperor.
If proclaiming Asen the new emperor was indeed a falsehood promulgated by Taiki with the intention of ensnaring Asen, then didn’t that mean ensnaring Asen was the Will of Heaven?
On the other hand, the Rikkan fawned incessantly on Asen. With Chou’un expanding his own power base and vying for supremacy while kissing up to the increasingly determined Asen, calls to remove Chou’un from office grew louder and more strident. Among them, the loudest were the ones also singing the praises of Asen’s impending enthronement
Chou’un found himself caught in betwixt and between. The patterns of power within the Imperial Palace had begun to shift and change in a major way.
Ansaku gazed upon the flustered Chou’un with cold eyes. Every way you look at it, this man doesn’t stand a chance.
Butting heads with Taiki had clearly weakened Chou’un’s position. He was reaping what he had sown.
But as far as Chou’un was concerned, “I have no reason to lock horns with the Taiho. Harboring any animosity toward him is out of the question.”
Even at this point, Chou’un thought nothing of reversing course and pretending he’d been heading that way all along.
“Though the Taiho may not see things that way,” Ansaku said, an air of sympathy in his voice.
“Why? What have I done?”
Ansaku bowed his head and kept his shocked reaction to himself. He understood how the man’s mind worked. Chou’un would already be rearranging his recollection of past events in ways more favorable to the current state of affairs.
“I hate to say it, but I’ve had my doubts about the Taiho’s bona fides from the start,” Ansaku said, further testing the waters.
Chou’un responded with a look that suggested he treated any such suspicions as all the more outrageous.
“I have never doubted the Taiho. There may have been the rare occasion when I exercised an additional degree of caution.”
Ansaku answered only with a nod.
“So this person shows up claiming to be the Taiho. Why should I doubt him without giving him a fair hearing? The heart tells me to believe and rejoice. But I am the Chousai. The mind must remain focused on keeping His Highness safe and the kingdom at peace. I cannot afford to dismiss the possibility that this Taiho is an imposter. Given my position, such credulity would be unforgivable, no matter how callous it might appear.”
But of course, Ansaku chuckled to himself. As far as he knew, Chou’un wasn’t rationalizing or making excuses. These were the man’s honest thoughts. He wasn’t lying. From one moment to the next, he simply glossed over any inconvenient realities. With a subtle shift of nuance, applying a slight shade to the meaning, he twisted the truth one way or the other. Repeated over and over, he produced an imagined reality more accommodating to his own.
In another two or three months, he would forget any doubts he ever harbored. Rather, he was surrounded by doubters, whom he had opposed at every turn.
Because it had become Chou’un’s “truth,” he shamelessly asserted it was so without the slightest shame or remorse. Anyone not familiar with the particulars of the events in which he was involved would tend to trust him based on that attitude alone. Once convinced, should they later catch wind of the truth, they would interpret it only as a malicious attempt to sully Chou’un good name.
Despite his deep-rooted incompetence, Chou’un thus created an aura of competence around himself. From his personal perspective, what might have been mistaken for doubt was simply his competence shining through. His version of the truth followed a similar course, constantly conforming to the reality that Chou’un personally experienced, according to which he never failed.
Ansaku’s own experience had taught him that the minds of many high-ranked civil servants worked the same way.
“Wasn’t Kashaku the one who first raised question about whether he really was the Taiho and deserved to be sitting alongside His Highness?”
Ansaku again smiled to himself. No, that was Chou’un. Kashaku was simply following suit. Typical of those eager to be seen toeing the party line, Kashaku didn’t echo the words of Chou’un alone. This was also a pattern among incompetents who papered over their deficiencies, but as a result of this conduct, it was not long before all those misdeeds ended up being laid at the feet of Kashaku instead.
And so the chickens came home to roost.
“If the Taiho has misunderstood, those misunderstandings must be addressed. Ansaku, you wouldn’t perhaps know of someone who could serve as a mediator in such a situation?”
Ansaku answered that he would look for such a person.
Good to his word, Ansaku commenced a search for an intermediary in Taiki’s circle who could build a bridge between the two sides. He didn’t know where Chou’un was going to end up in all this, but if an avenue of communication could be established, he wanted to make sure it remained intact.
The problem was, the animosity toward Chou’un was strong in anyone close to Taiki. He sought out an independent third party who could fulfill that role, except by and large they already held a strong affinity with Taiki’s camp. Those loyal to Asen hesitated to participate in such an exercise, and were not at all disposed to support Chou’un.
In any case, everyone he trusted to be a truly honest broker already supported Taiki. Because the righteousness of the kirin alone could be taken as a given.
Chou’un’s authority as the center of power in the Imperial Court slowly waned while that of the Zui Province government, led by Taiki, clearly grew. They recruited talented people to the effort and nimbly began to move in the directions Taiki desired.
They opened public granaries across Zui Province enough to tide over the bitter cold of mid-winter. But the lives of the people would still be hard. Reserves collapsed during the worst of the winter weather, inflicting additional difficulties on the survivors going forward.
Displaced persons were resettled in towns where the population had collapsed and given the opportunity to homestead the places where they settled down. Soup kitchens and boarding houses were built in cities where large numbers of refugees had congregated. Agents set up shop among them, recruiting workers to rebuild the towns and cities damaged by war and natural disasters.
Despite the meager wages, news of paying jobs drew in more refugees from outside Zui Province.
At long last, a new source of light, small but certain, sprang to life in Tai.