Dreaming of Paradise

Chapter 5

1-5 Shuka persevered through the Privy Council, feeling like a cold, black lump was lodged in the pit of her stomach. Sitting in Shishou's field of view alone was unbearable. Even after the Privy Council had concluded and she was out of his presence, her anxieties grew all the keener. She returned to the manse overwhelmed by the oppressive gloom surrounding her.

"Welcome home," said Seiki, her valet, upon her arrival at the residence. And then, "Are you all right?" He'd probably been informed about her return by the watchman. He had prepared two cups of tea. They sat down and he studied her face. "You look even worse than when you left."

"I'm okay. Just a little tired."

"Oh, is that it?" he replied in an unconvinced tone of voice. He placed the teacup on the table. Mumbling something about the air being bad and the light being too strong, he hurried around opening the windows. Then he turned down the wick on the lamp, moved the folding screens around, and generally straightened up the room.

Seiki had a small, round frame, and the way he flitted about the room reminded Shuka of a pudgy sparrow. She finally was able to sit back and take a breath. He'd always had that uncanny ability to put her at ease.

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"That's why I'm always telling you not to burn the candle at both ends. That's what you were doing last night, right? I've been checking the lamps."

"Well, then doesn't that mean you've been doing the same thing?"

"Not a problem for me, sister. Once you've left for work, I can find some time during my regular duties to take a nap."

Shuka laughed. She wasn't actually Seiki's sister. Nor was he related to Eishuku. He'd been orphaned during the chaos following the death of King Fu. Eishuku's mother Shinshi had taken him under her wing.

Shinshi was also Shishou's aunt. She was a compassionate person. When Shishou's mother had died, she had taken her place, and had profoundly influenced Shishou's life. After his coronation, he had listed her upon the Registry of Wizards and had appointed her Taifu in the Sankou.

She was his tutor, and from his youth until the creation of Kouto, he and Eishuku had been inseparable. He referred to Eishuku as his "big brother," and then to Shuka as his "big sister." At the age of nineteen, he encountered no objections to being listed as Eishuku's undersecretary on the Registry of Wizards. After that, he'd worked as the manager of Eishuku's estate.

"Will Eishuku-sama be making it home tonight?" Seiki asked with a concerned glance at the door.

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"Hard to tell. He's really had a lot of things on his plate of late."

"And how was he today?"

"The atmosphere at the Imperial Court was pretty tense prior to the Privy Council. But Shishou put the ministers' minds at ease."

Shuka winced to herself. At the mention of the Imperial Court, Seiki raised his eyebrows as well. "Then His Highness is as determined as ever?"

"Whatever you call it, it's worse than it's ever been."

The rest of the minister had departed, buoyed by Shishou's bravado. Shuka alone had gone away feeling worse. The sight of Shishou as ambitious as ever and the ministers eager to believe everything he said felt like an oppressive weight on her chest.

Shishou was a "Whirlwind King." There was no telling whether his bright flame would burn long or burn itself out. There was no doubt that Shuka and the other members of Kouto had believed completely in Shishou's greatness. Of course he was the first to depart on the Shouzan. Of course he was chosen. His whirlwind accession needed no apologies.

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The people supported Shishou as they had Kouto. He was seated upon the throne to great acclaim. The Imperial Court was speedily reconstituted. Kouto was bursting with supporters of the new regime, and all the political factions sharing their same ideals. The road ahead was clear, and they marched forward hand in hand. The destruction accompanying the empty throne was kept to a minimum, the new court was reformed in the flash of an eye and began to govern.

Everybody believed they were seeing the auspicious dawn of a new dynasty. Except that Sai in reality hadn't worked out the way they'd all imagined. From the start, the Imperial Court stumbled over its own feet again and again.

Shishou's first order of business was to make a clean sweep of the officials who had aided and abetted King Fu during the latter days of his delinquent rule, and who had helped themselves to the Imperial Treasury. A great many of them were sacked. But that only brought the business of government to a standstill.

Still, thought Shuka, that really couldn't be blamed on Shishou.

With the dismissal of all the corrupt bureaucrats, the remaining civil servants found themselves shorthanded. And not only that, those used to sucking up to the powers-that-be and feeding at the public trough quit out of spite or refused to work. Things got to a point where firing all of the hold-outs would have made it impossible to get anything done.

The only remaining recourse was to swallow hard and rehire most of the people they'd just fired. But then it was the citizenry who became outraged. Why were these obviously corrupt officials being rewarded so? The criticisms billowed up like threatening thunderstorms.

The officials themselves were hardly grateful to Shishou for their resurrected careers. They grew more arrogant. From one end of the kingdom to the other, they resumed plucking the loose change from every peasant's pocket.

All this did not mean that Shishou had strayed from the correct path. The ones who deserved the blame were those civil servants who shamelessly continued to do wrong, even in the face of open censure.

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But neither was Shishou immune to criticism. Judged by the end results, he should not have been satisfied with the way he was running the bureaucracy. In many ways, Shuka wondered if the government had made any progress at all since the reign of King Fu. The lot of the commoners certainly hadn't improved in the meantime. Rather, long-accumulated assets were slowly and steadily being worn away.

There wasn't much point to Shishou heading down the same path as King Fu. And yet, as Shuka pointed out, he remained undaunted. "We just have to correct our mistakes. We must remain firm in our conviction. We can't think of retreat now."

"I guess so. But, you know, isn't that what you'd expect from him? At times like this, it's just not anybody who could get the ministers to calm down. Aren't you most likely to distrust somebody else is when you trust yourself the least? Seems obvious to me."

With a nod to himself, Seiki's full cheeks dimpled in a grin. "It's not like ordinary people, you know. There's no way that our Shishou-sama could have parted from the Way in so mundane a fashion. I'm sure of it."

"Yes," Shuka answered, but without any conviction in her heart.

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