he man stood beneath the symbol of Imperial power. "Any government that indulges itself will stray from the Way."
The throne's dais rested on four columns inlaid with gold and silver. The pearl blinds surrounding the throne were raised, but the throne itself was empty. Behind the bejeweled seat, a silver-white screen engraved with flying dragons illuminated the scene.
Following long-established precedent, the ministers knelt on the floor of the spacious Gaiden, their heads almost touching the weave of the carpet. They understood the seeming pointlessness of paying their respects to an empty throne, as did the man standing beneath the throne facing them.
"From the start, we valiant citizens of Hou, mere ministers and bureaucrats that we are, could not think ourselves free to do as we pleased, even when His Highness, the Royal Hou, was no longer with us."
The man speaking had all but seized power in the Kingdom of Hou, yet he placed his chair beneath the dais and under no circumstances would set foot upon it.
The man's name was Gekkei. The late Royal Hou had appointed him Marquis of Kei Province. Four years before, he had banded together with the other Province Lords to overthrow that same Royal Hou.
"In order to bring order to the Imperial Court, it became necessary to reach beyond our jurisdictions. Having brought chaos upon us, it was our duty to bring it under control. Four years have passed and the Imperial Court is now in order. After this, without exceeding our authority, without resorting to tyranny, we officials of the Court and the Kingdom shall, to the best of our abilities, manage the present situation and solemnly work toward the coronation of a new king."
Several of the ministers and officials in the broad hall arrayed before the empty throne cast their eyes downward, as if in shame or self-reflection.
"Amend or abolish even one law and we usurp what is by right the power of the king. Sadly, many harsh laws established by His Highness continue to needlessly torment the citizens of Hou. In these cases, let the news go forth that no one need fear censure if they are not enforced. That is as far as we can allow ourselves to go. The responsibility for abolishing laws is better entrusted to the future king. Rashly eliminating and writing laws is not within the scope of our authority. Shouyou—"
The man he addressed lifted his head. Gekkei looked at him and said, "In the same way, after this, we must be careful about going beyond what has already been established. Nor do I foresee any scenarios which would require us to do so. While His Highness enacted many harsh laws, he dealt with corrupt government officials with equal severity. There is no denying that his anti-corruption campaigns crossed the line. But his efforts meant that Hou has largely escaped the poisonous snakes nurtured by depraved politicians. Despite this reduction in their numbers, there are yet ministers and officials of great virtue left to serve in the Imperial Court. We hope no further culling will become necessary. The duty of governing the Kingdom rests upon their shoulders. The duty given me is that of governing Kei Province, not the Kingdom. I firmly believe that a mere Province Lord inserting himself into Imperial matters would constitute straying from the Way. My continued presence in Youshun Palace should not be condoned. Do you beg to differ?"
Shouyou dropped his gaze. "A kingdom has need of a king."
"His Highness no longer lives."
"Somebody must stand at the head of the ministers to unite them, to engage in Imperial affairs with resolve and determination, put the laws in order, govern the citizenry, and guide the Imperial Court. Else the kingdom will continue to falter."
"There is no other lord of the ministers but the Royal Hou."
Shouyou looked up at Gekkei. "The Royal Hou does not sit upon the throne because we were left with no other choice but to commit regicide."
"We do no deny that there is no greater sin than that. As a consequence, Hou today is a despised kingdom of outlaws. Only the Royal Kyou of the Kingdom of Kyou has recognized this government, and then only privately. It otherwise does not exist officially. And yet do you so despise the thought of leading it as well?"
"I have said nothing of the sort."
"Do you regret killing Chuutatsu?"
Gekkei averted his gaze.
"We killed the Royal Hou Chuutatsu. As regicides, we all bear that burden together. But I feel no shame for having done so. Not considering the lives lost to Chuutatsu's cruel laws and the suffering they caused. Call it the product of righteous indignation or a mere settling of scores—at least Chuutatsu no longer sits upon that throne. You, the Marquis of Kei, thought no differently. Isn't that why you turned your back to the Way and led this insurrection?"
Gekkei had no answer to Shouyou's question.
"To occupy the throne without a Divine Mandate would definitely constitute a de facto usurpation. Are you so afraid of being accused of stealing the crown? If so, then why plot this coup in the first place? If you raised an army and struck down the king out of compassion for his long-suffering subjects, then shouldn't that compassion require you to carry out the kingly duties on behalf of the people, the label of pretender notwithstanding?"
Hard-pressed to answer, Gekkei looked at the floor instead. At that moment, an undersecretary entered the room. He bowed and approached Gekkei and said something in a soft voice.
"The Kingdom of Kei—"
Gekkei eyes flew open. He spun around to face the undersecretary, his flustered gaze passing over Shouyou and the others. Excusing himself, he briskly left the Gaiden in the company of the undersecretary.
"A personal communiqué from the Royal Kei?" was his first question.
The undersecretary confirmed this with an affirmative nod.
He was a renegade who had trampled upon the Divine Rule of Law, assassinated the king, and usurped the throne. And yet he was being told that he'd received a communiqué from the rightful Empress of Kei. Not to mention that Kei and Hou enjoyed no diplomatic relations of any sort.
An emissary from Her Highness had arrived bearing correspondence addressed to him? The undersecretary nodded again, clearly no less befuddled than he was. Gekkei gathered his confused thoughts together and instructed the undersecretary to escort the emissary to the palace annex.