5-7 The rocky ledge reached out over open air. The city of Kouki unfurled far below the towering palisades, a distance so vast it made the head spin. The colors of autumn deepened day by day. Harbingers of winter crept into every gust of wind and tinged the great expanse of the sky.
The large, flat slab of finished stone formed a platform. The cliffs of Ryou’un Mountain rose around it on three sides.
Cut into the side of the cliffs, a walkway wound around the face of the mountain. Here and there the path widened a bit to form a terrace. At the highest point along the walkway, a small figure appeared next to the precipice. A bird perched on her arm. She stood at the edge showing not the slightest sign of fear. For a long minute, she gazed at the world below.
And then launched the bird into the air. Blue wings beat against a blue sky as it wheeled about and headed north. The young woman watched the bird fly away.
She was not dressed in ministerial robes. Her personal attire suggested she was in the Imperial Palace of her own accord. She wore a divided skirt and a kimono jacket that normally reached the knee but was hemmed short. Though the jacket was made from lightweight material, the cloth matched that of court attire in cost and quality.
She wore as well a matching pair of swords on either side of her waist. As hefty as the swords must be, they did not weigh her down in the least. Rather, she carried herself like a lithe animal. Even now, standing at the very edge of the cliff, she didn’t stir an inch. Having followed the walkway to the far end, she climbed onto a crenel in the parapet and curled her toes around the lip of stone.
Not even a brisk breeze made her sway.
The girl watched the bird until it disappeared from view, then turned and hopped gracefully onto the walkway. She left the terrace and followed the path along the face of the cliff. Descending a flight of stairs, she passed by the doorway from which she had emerged earlier. She continued down the walkway, negotiating multiple switchbacks, and finally arrived at the platform.
The giant doorway set into the platform was the shuttered Forbidden Gate. The other walkways leading to the platform were devoid of life. The gatekeeper’s room adjacent the gate looked like it’d been gouged out of the cliff. She peeked through the long horizontal slit in the rock. The room’s sole inhabitant was a civil servant. An utterly bored look on his face, he looked back at her with vacant eyes.
His expression didn’t falter in the least. He wasn’t ignoring her. He was a loyal functionary going through the motions like a mannikin. His job was to challenge anybody who approached the Forbidden Gate. He knew who the young woman was and couldn’t be bothered to demand that she identify herself. That’s what it came down to.
Sparing him only a glance, the girl moved on to a large building carved from the stone of the cliff. These were the imperial stables. The emperor’s kijuu were kept there, along with the kijuu of the guards assigned to the Forbidden Gate. Visitors entering the Imperial Palace through the Forbidden Gate might temporarily stable their mounts there too.
Next to the stables were the barracks for the guards. Five soldiers stood there like a row of statues. Knowing the girl was permitted to come and go from the gate, they acted no differently than the gatekeeper. Faces blank with disinterest, they looked at the girl and didn’t budge. They might as well have been propped up corpses.
Though had a stranger strolled into their presence, they would have sprung into action and cut him down with mechanical precision, no questions asked.
The whole of the Imperial Palace is not much different than this.
That thought on her mind, the young woman peered into the stables. Half of the stalls were boarded up. In front of the last stall at the back, a man sat on an overturned bucket, his large frame almost curled over into a ball. When she stepped inside, the man turned his head and looked at her with listless eyes. But then a mix of emotions rose to his face. He was not one of those lifeless mannikins.
“Wearing the same glum face as usual,” the girl said.
Showing no inclination to answer, the man returned his gaze to the stall in front of him. Inside crouched a creature that resembled a white tiger. It was a ferociously beautiful animal, black stripes on a white coat, a tail as long as its body, eyes that glittered like cut glass.
“How are you doing, Keito?” the girl called out.
She wanted to get closer to the kijuu but could not. Only the man sitting there in front of the stall was allowed to approach the suugu. The stall was enclosed in iron bars. The suugu would attack anybody who carelessly strayed too close. The beast likely only wished to remove any nuisance from its presence, but one swipe of its forepaws could kill a man.
The girl stood next the man and looked into the stall. “I heard the Taiho has returned,” she said, gazing at the suugu.
She heard him drawn his breath. “The Taiho—” he echoed, as if in a daze. The boulder of a man rose to his feet. “Yari, is that really true?”
Yari glanced up at him. “Seems so.”
“Was he taken prisoner?”
“The Taiho returned to the Imperial Palace of his own volition. Walked right in the front gate. Nobody had to arrest him or anything. Because apparently Asen is the new emperor.”
The man leaned over to seize her by the shoulders. Yari skipped out of the way like a leaf blown by a gust of wind. His hands grasping empty air, the man glared at her in stark astonishment.
“Asen? The emperor?”
“According to the Taiho.”
“Impossible!” the man roared. “A villain and a thief! He stole the throne and butchered his own subjects. He isn’t qualified to be emperor in the slightest!”
Yari craned her head and said, “Gyousou butchered his share of his subjects too. A military man, after all.”
“Not the same meaning at all!”
“Not the same? He’s killed the people of Tai with his own hands. What other meaning is there? Aren’t they all birds of a feather? Asen and Gyousou and even you, Ganchou.”
Ganchou fumed. “Having the right reasons matters. We never set out to kill innocent people on purpose.”
“I suppose Asen had his right reasons too.”
“Are you calling right the reasons of a usurper?”
“They’d be right if he wasn’t a usurper. Because apparently the Divine Will has been revised anew.”
“Nonsense,” Ganchou spit out. “There is no need for a new emperor in the first place. The emperor of Tai is even now—” He closed his mouth in the middle of the sentence. A look of fear rose to his face. “No, that cannot be—”
“You want to know if the White Pheasant has fallen? The answer is, no. I’m told the White Pheasant is alive and well. That means you are right, there is no reason for a new emperor to step forth. And that fact has the Imperial Court in a tumult.”
Ganchou craned his head back and stared at the ceiling and let out a long breath. Then he returned his attention to Yari. “And what does your boss say?”
“He says it is impossible too.”
As if to quench his irritation, Ganchou sat down on the pail in a huff. “There is no new Emperor Asen. He must have grabbed the Taiho and made him say what he said.”
“That doesn’t make sense either. Everybody says the Taiho came back because he wanted to.”
“Then what is going on?”
“Hmm.” Yari returned her gaze to the suugu. The animal stared back at Yari and Ganchou with deep interest.
“A storm is coming,” Yari said under her breath.
Ganchou glanced up at her, a dubious look on his face.
“That’s what my boss says,” Yari explained. “A storm is coming. The times are changing. For better and for worse.”
“I don’t understand a thing your boss says.”
“Not the kind of person that people like us are ever bound to comprehend.”
Meaning what? asked another deep sigh from Ganchou. He asked, “How is he doing?”
“The Taiho? I haven’t met him so I don’t know.”
“Oh,” Ganchou muttered.
“But I hear he’s all grown up.”
Gogetsu heard the kirin of Tai had returned to the Imperial Palace from Boushuku. Boushuku was another junior retainer like himself.
“Really?” He felt a reflexive jolt of delight, followed by a deep sense of unease.
“The news seems to check out,” said his young colleague, his voice and expression bright as he sharpened his sword. “Somebody confirmed that he is the Taiho, without a doubt. Moreover, the Taiho declared the Asen-sama was chosen as the new emperor.”
“That’s absurd!” Gogetsu blurted out.
“Absurd? Why do you say that?” Boushuku stopped what he was doing and turned to Gogetsu. His youthful face took on a look of honest confusion.
“Ah, no,” Gogetsu prevaricated. “Not at all.”
Boushuku shook off the puzzled expression, smiled, and returned to the work before him. “Of course Asen-sama is the new emperor. Tai at last has better days before her.”
Boushuku spoke with great enthusiasm. He clearly looked forward to finally being able to wield his sword on behalf of the kingdom.
“Sure,” came the reply. Gogetsu sat back on the chair, drew up his knees and wrapped his arms around his legs. He unconsciously found himself gnawing on his fingernails.
This room in a corner of the Inner Palace was consigned to the junior retainers. Gogetsu joined their ranks five years before. Boushuku took up a new post here last year. They’d been chosen from the rank and file soldiers to serve on the emperor’s security detail. In light of their heavy responsibilities, they typically held the rank of centurion or higher.
A centurion commanded a hundred soldiers, a position that, in and of itself, demanded commensurate achievements. The young Boushuku had only recently become a centurion and was soon promoted to this post as a junior retainer. He had every reason to be pleased with his performance. Gogetsu considered his rise dazzling.
A new emperor. Gogetsu turned the statement over in his mind with a mix of emotions. Tai had been without its kirin these past six years. While Asen took on the role of the emperor in holding the Imperial Court together, the emperor and the kirin moved the kingdom forward together, like the two wheels of a cart. Misfortune was inevitable when one of them went missing. Tai could have hoped for no better news than the return of the Saiho.
The absence of the Saiho from the palace should never have happened in the first place. Asen was at the root of that misfortune, Asen who had committed high treason.
Gogetsu was one of Asen’s subordinates. He had commanded a battalion under Seikou, the current general of the Palace Guard of the Left. Though neither Seikou nor Gogetsu had any part in the treason, when it came to the loss of the emperor and the disappearance of the Saiho from the palace, he couldn’t say they were without sin.
At least Gogetsu couldn’t call himself blameless. He hadn’t raised a voice of censure, hadn’t taken Asen to task. Knowing of his treason, Gogetsu never defied him. He’d simply gone along.
And so Gogetsu wound up on the side of those who’d driven the Saiho from the palace. He didn’t think he had the right to rejoice over his return. At the same time, he knew it was wrong that such a malefactor should become emperor.
Boushuku has no comprehension of what this feels like.
To begin with, Boushuku hailed from Gai Province in the south. When General Shinryou of the Provincial Guard transferred to the Imperial Army, he brought Boushuku with him. Boushuku thus bore no responsibility for any act of treason and no responsibility for the current status quo in Tai. He could rejoice in the return of the Saiho with a clear conscience.
They certainly had every reason to expect that this dynastic change meant they would now be able to honorably carry out their duties. Gogetsu understood those expectations so well it hurt.
The junior retainers served as the emperor’s personal bodyguards outside of the public eye. Protecting the emperor was their primary charge, except for a long time, all Gogetsu and his colleagues had done was report to their posts and sit around all day.
A slow death from a thousand cuts.
When his spot in the rotation came up, he headed over to the Inner Hall and camped out in the guardroom. He did nothing of note until his shift was over and then went home. That was the sum of his idle life day after day. Because Asen had not commissioned the junior retainers for his own protection.
Any appearance Asen made at the Inner Hall also involved building security, though that happened hardly at all, and he often didn’t bother summoning them when it did. Gogetsu had no idea whose orders the security detail was supposed to follow or what they were supposed to actually secure.
Why doesn’t Asen want anyone anywhere near him?
As one of Asen’s subordinates, personal concerns aside, Gogetsu should be able to take honest satisfaction in having won Asen’s approval and the honor of serving alongside him as his bodyguard. But here he was, twiddling his thumbs. For the past five years.
He’d given up asking for reasons and pleading for more productive work. Like the other retainers, he’d resigned himself to the job being what it was, nothing more and nothing less.
Though Boushuku saw things differently. “When do you think the coronation will take place?” he happily inquired.
“Hard to say,” was always Gogetsu’s answer.
Kisen was fit to be tied. Asen had once again left his retainers in the lurch. Why does this keep happening? he wondered.
Kisen considered Asen his esteemed sovereign. Asen was exceedingly virtuous, capable, and resolute. Unbeaten on the battlefield, he had been Emperor Kyou’s most valued vassal. He was no less revered by his soldiers and respected by everyone who knew him.
Comparisons to Gyousou often arose, but as far as Kisen was concerned, Asen was the better man. Kisen thought Gyousou had a difficulty keeping in step with his surroundings. Gyousou tended to jump to his own conclusions and pursue them with a dogmatic sense of conviction.
Asen was different. His listened to his subordinates. He took their opinions into consideration and did not hesitate to explain his decision. He was frank and honest in his personal and professional associations. He paid attention to even seemingly insignificant details and kept his promises.
In contrast to the timidity that Taiki showed around Gyousou, the way he took to Asen was surely proof of this.
Asen had a great capacity to accept others, an aura of magnanimity that put them at ease. Gyousou lacked such qualities. At times he walled himself off emotionally, creating a tense atmosphere in his immediate vicinity.
So why Gyousou and not Asen? That was a question Kisen still could not answer.
Asen-sama is the true emperor, superior to Gyousou in every way.
That was the belief Kisen had clung to all along. When he learned of Asen’s rebellion, he was not surprised in the least. It only made sense. Heaven made a mistake. Asen corrected it. Justice was served.
Asen would prove that he should have been emperor all along. Kisen worked alongside him with that strong sense of determination. He refused no task that was for the good of the sovereign. Such work was never trying or difficult. Kisen believed a wrong decision had steered the dynasty astray. They would return it to the right and proper course under the leadership of the rightful ruler.
And yet, at some point, Asen stopped appearing in public, stopped meeting with Kisen and the rest of his staff. They heard from him as rarely as they saw him. Far from it. He issued no orders or instructions.
“What is going on with Asen-sama?”
Unable to contain his frustration, Kisen posed the question to Hinken, another one of Asen’s senior commanders. Hinken said with a self-deprecating smile, “We must not be rising to Asen-sama’s expectations in a satisfactory manner. We are not doing the requisite work.”
“Except we haven’t done—” anything wrong, Kisen started to say before clamping his mouth shut.
They had undeniably been given orders, but he couldn’t say they’d accomplished what Asen was striving for when he issued those orders. He ordered them to put down the civilian uprisings, so they put down the civilian uprisings. Those objectives they saw through to the end. Except what Asen desired was a world without civilian uprisings, a goal they were nowhere close to fulfilling.
Seen in that light, Kisen and his colleagues had not risen to Asen’s expectations.
“Except that doesn’t apply only to us,” Kisen pointed out.
Hinken sighed. “We haven’t measured up for some time now. We’ve been putting in insufficient effort going all the way back to Bun Province.”
Kisen swallowed his response. When Gyousou disappeared, Kisen and his fellow commanders were headed to Bun Province along with him. Kisen hadn’t been privy to Asen’s plans beforehand. He did as he was ordered, which, he believed, was to support Gyousou in the defense of Tetsui. So that’s what he did.
As a result, his efforts may have not aligned with Asen’s true wishes. In fact, though no one had seen Gyousou since, rumors said he was still alive. His assailants must have failed. Unaware of what was going on, Kisen and his men might well have inadvertently hindered the assassin and obstructed his subsequent course of action.
“Asen is likely disappointed with us,” he said in forlorn tones. Kisen hung his head.
We have undoubtedly performed in a less that exemplary manner.
The Imperial Court was in chaos and the kingdom was not at peace. Kisen and his colleagues weren’t working hard enough and their work did not innovate or inspire.
Moreover, Hinken wasn’t one of Asen’s original retainers. He served under a different general during the reign of Emperor Kyou. When Kisen joined the military, Hinken was already one of Asen’s subordinates, though his different roots may well have affected his reception.
Kisen’s approach to his work had indeed been described “ham-handed.” Asen told him so, right after he messed up in a major way.
“You really are a bull in a china shop,” Asen said with a warm smile. “You have a hard time getting things done without ruffling as many feathers as possible in the process.”
When the humbled Kisen apologized, Asen slapped him on the back. “But that is exactly why I can trust you. There’s no need to hold yourself in contempt.”
The mistake wasn’t Kisen’s, Asen explained. It was his failure for giving Kisen that particular order. No need for regrets.
Hinken later explain, “Asen-sama straight-up calls you tactless and gauche. But what he’s also saying is that nobody sets out to be that way. Handled right, such qualities could prove a rare gift. See that you don’t take them for granted. That’s the gist of it, I think.”
Hinken’s words put Kisen in a good mood. Compared to others, he knew he didn’t measure up across the board. All he could do was serve as earnestly and diligently as he could. No matter how hard he worked, his achievements would lag behind. And yet knowing that his efforts didn’t go unappreciated was intensely reassuring.
And yet, he couldn’t help feeling he’d been cast aside, that Asen had finally thrown up his hands. He truly was nothing but a fool and an incompetent.
When Kisen confessed these feelings to Hinken, Hinken responded with a wry grin. “You know, Asen-sama likes to say the two of us are a lot alike. If so, then I must have been cast aside just like you.”
“No, we’re not at all alike! You think things through. You’re solid and reliable. You have so many achievements to your name. You are completely different from people like me!”
Hinken grinned and clapped Kisen on the shoulder, this time showing him a truly pleasant smile. “Subordinates like you are truly hard to come by.”
“Um, sure,” Kisen replied, unsure whether he was being praised or not.
“Take that as a compliment,” Hinken said, the smile lingering in his voice. “I appreciate how you press forward without any compulsion to change. Well, the time will come when we will be of use once again. Believe that and keep your shoulder to the wheel.”
“Yes,” Kisen said with a nod.
Get to work. He should be hearing those orders before very long. When he did, he’d be ready to do his part the best he could. There could be no slacking off in the meantime. That was the course of action he committed to in his heart.
And now that time had come. Taiki had returned and proclaimed Asen the new emperor.
The Imperial Court was bound to change in significant ways after this. The moment in time when they could literally create a new era was upon them. The stagnant air lingering around the Imperial Palace was going to lift. Asen’s wounding silence would melt away. He’d send down the word to his once and future senior staff: Get to work.
Any day now. Without a doubt.