2-5 Voices whispering back and forth awakened Risai. It was the dead of night.
“I’m positively famished.”
“I thought so. I made tea. It’s waiting for you.”
“Thanks. Want to have it together?”
The frivolous nature of the conversation made Risai raise her head. The lady-in-waiting by the bed gave her a surprised look. Another young woman leaned around the doorframe and poked her head into the room.
“Oh, sorry. Did we wake you?”
Risai shook her head, no. “You didn’t miss dinner on my account, did you?”
Suzu waved her hand back and forth. “Just taking the opportunity when it comes. Shoukei was good enough to bring me a midnight meal, so it’s okay.”
“Please go ahead and eat,” Risai said. “I’m fine.”
The girl called Shoukei smiled at Suzu. “Hurry up and clean your plate. I’ll be waiting here.”
Suzu nodded and left the room. As if taking her place, Shoukei sat down next to the bed. “I apologize for making such a racket over something so silly. My name is Shoukei. I’m a lady of the court like Suzu.”
“Think nothing of it. I’ve been such a burden on you all. You needn’t feel compelled to wait upon me hand and foot.”
Shoukei smiled. “Don’t worry about such things. We’re so short-handed that we’re unable to wait upon you as we ought to. We apologize.”
“Oh, you needn’t go to such lengths. The ladies of the court have comported themselves with extraordinary grace.” Risai looked away. “The Imperial Kei also strikes me as a sincere and well-meaning person.”
Shoukei grinned. “She is inclined to earnestness, and is honest to a fault.”
“The occupants of Kinpa Palace seem awfully at ease around the Imperial Kei.”
“That sort of mood is in the air, to be sure. I suppose you find the lack of solemnity around here quite appalling.”
“I’ve heard that the Imperial Tai is a splendid monarch. But nobody knows where he is at the moment. That surely weights on your mind.”
“Yes,” Risai nodded.
“The people of Tai must be suffering terribly. Not to mention the harshness of the Tai winter.”
“Are you familiar with Tai?”
Shoukei shook her head. “But I’m originally from Hou. The winters in Hou are similarly bitter. One thing goes wrong and it drags you down the whole winter and puts your life at risk. I’ve heard that the winters in Tai are even worse than those in Hou.
“I suppose they are.”
“The throne is currently empty in Hou as well. However, the situation there is different. The emperor who died in Hou had devastated the kingdom—” As she spoke a sad smile came to Shoukei face. “So the throne was vacated, for the good of the people, in some respects. But I’ve heard that the Imperial Tai was much loved by his people. Losing such a emperor—”
“Yes, losing such a emperor—”
“There was a coup d’etat? At the beginning of a dynasty, fearful of losing all they have stolen, the traitors and conspirators are likely to only surrender their ill-gotten gains kicking and screaming.”
“I don’t know if that applies—” Risai said to herself and Shoukei cocked her head to one side. “It’s definitely the case that when a new dynasty begins, those who have taken advantage of the vacant post to impose their own tyrannical rule will feel the heat after the new emperor is enthroned. But I don’t believe that this was the cause of the revolt.”
“I don’t know,” Risai answered. She knew rebellion had not been far from the minds of many officials, but she and her fellow officers had remained sufficiently vigilant. “I don’t know how such a thing could have happened.”
“His Highness may well prove to be an enlightened ruler,” said Risai’s obviously impressed traveling companion, a close military aid from Jou Province. “The Sankou say they’ve never seen an Imperial Court organized so quickly. Everybody is full of admiration.”
“So it would seem.”
“Even though he’s reputed to be a pretty tough taskmaster, the infantry is overjoyed with the new emperor. And the people appear to hold him in high regard.”
Risai smiled and nodded. With his military background, Gyousou was bound to be popular among the troops. All the more so because the late Emperor Kyou had arisen from the civil service and held the uniformed services in low regard.
Upon assuming the throne, Gyousou took Emperor Kyou’s hoarded treasures and distributed them to the provincial warehouses to fortify them against the coming winter. That alone won the hearts of the people. Winters in Tai were harsh. When food and fuel ran low, their lives were on the line. Emperor Kyou’s spendthrift ways had emptied the local treasuries and warehouses. A cheer was raised when their stores were shipped back to them.
“It seems a brand new era is beginning,” Risai’s aide-de-camp said with a smile.
Risai shared these feelings. She heard the rejoicing of the people. Venturing into the city centers revealed that their citizens were inclined to think well of Gyousou. And it wasn’t just the commoners. The ministers bustling about the Imperial Palace wore enthusiastic expressions on their faces.
But a speeding carriage makes a lot of noise that can drown out fainter voices of alarm.
Joining the Imperial Court as a general of the Provincial Guard, Risai couldn’t help noticing the strange shadows that unexpectedly lurked here and there amidst the frenetic surroundings. It wasn’t until after the Festival of the Winter Solstice that she understood what it was she’d been observing.
“I’ll shortly be sending the Taiho to the Kingdom of Ren,” Gyousou said to his advisors. “The round trip to Ren takes about a month. During that time we shall conduct the winter hunt.”
At first Risai took the words at face value. As no important business awaited them around the New Year, that was when they’d hold a large-scale hunting expedition. Though the affairs of the Imperial Court had pretty much been put in order, this still struck her as cavalier behavior.
From the confused air circulating through the room, she wasn’t the only one who thought so. General Asen of the Palace Guard of the Right broke the silence. In a strangely low voice he asked, “And the game in this hunt?”
The abruptness of the answer made Risai gulp.
“We must deal with those government officials who corrupted their offices under the cover provided by the late emperor. We cannot turn a blind eye while these beasts roam the countryside. If left alone, it is likely that, begrudging their fall from grace, they will light fires elsewhere. They are a wily bunch, and the personal fortunes they’ve amassed are indispensable to the future of Tai.”
Risai realized to her horror that he was speaking of a political purge. The small room was filled with groans and sighs as others gave vent to similar feelings.
“Once the festival is concluded, only the New Year awaits. A diplomatic mission will be posted to Ren. With the envoys accompanied by a general who has commanded both the Palace and Zui Provincial Guards, I believe our quarries will suspect nothing. Throw a big enough net and we should snare them all.”
“And during that time the Taiho will be sent abroad?” Asen asked.
Gyousou nodded. “This is not something I wish Kouri to witness.”
“But isn’t he bound to hear about it sooner or later?”
“I’ll see to it that he does not. What is being discussed here shall not be mentioned to Kouri or to anybody else not participating directly in this campaign.”
“But producing these indictments in secret? This—”
Risai raised her voice to object. She understood that the rod could not be spared when it came to dealing with these wayward officials. But summarily executing them without a public trial was akin to a lynching.
“Of course we shall follow the rule of law in its entirety, albeit not in the public eye. The government departments involved in this campaign have carefully selected and organized the prosecutors. All other officials will be kept out of the loop. Everything should be wrapped up by the time Kouri returns. He should notice a new face here and there, and a slight decrease in the total workforce.”
Aren’t you lying to him? Risai felt like asking but thought better of it.
Considering the kirin’s benevolent nature, its natural abhorrence of bloodshed, and its loathing of injustice, keeping him in the dark might well be preferable. Exposure to blood alone would make a kirin ill. These actions could certainly be read as an indication of Gyousou’s compassion towards Taiki.
Even as she compelled herself to consent, another voice was heard, that of Kaei, recently appointed head of the Ministry of Fall.
“Are you sure this is an acceptable course? With all due respect, the Taiho will find out sooner or later. Rather than hiding such things behind his back, why not communicate the truth to him directly?”
“My orders stand,” Gyousou answered brusquely, ensuring that his was the last word on the subject.
Listening to the details of the campaign, Risai again felt a cold chill down her back—her own frightening lack of second thoughts about bringing down these scheming courtiers in one fell swoop.
Indeed, once Emperor Kyou’s favored retainer, Gyousou had installed his subordinates throughout the Imperial Court. He would already have a firm understanding of what people did and didn’t do, who the problem children were and how they should be disciplined.
Since assuming the throne, Gyousou would have already drawn up his plans, who should be removed and who should be replaced. He had undoubtedly foreseen what might happen when those “jackals” were brought to heel. In fact, this “winter hunt” was aimed not only at corrupt officials, but was part of an ongoing strategy to flush the hidden quail and wipe the slate clean.
Observing the purge unfold, those with treachery and evil buried in their hearts, those who had ingeniously hidden their evil acts from view, would feel the heat and panic and scamper from their holes.
This man— Risai thought, looking at Gyousou. This man will pull off in a year what would take any other emperor a decade—even half a century—to accomplish.
The chill ran through her. Up to that point, she hadn’t harbored any doubts about Gyousou. A general of great renown, Risai as well admired his disposition and temperament, and respected him enormously.
But for the first time she felt the whisperings of an ill omen in the air.
Even if convinced that these feelings arose solely in reaction to the substance of Gyousou’s campaign, she did not question his might or authority as emperor for a second. She simply couldn’t help wondering why such dark shadows would descend on her amidst such brilliant splendor.
A short time after that, Kaei suddenly showed up at her residence. It was night and a light snow was falling.