7-5 Keitou returned that evening. When Tokuyuu informed him that the Taiho was asleep, he retired without protest to the portico room. He had no good news to report about reviving the bureaucracy that served Taiki’s interests. In any event, such things were going to take time.
Heichuu and Shouwa arrived one after the other. The valet and lady-in-waiting normally traveled back and forth to the mansion. For now, they moved into rooms off the outer courtyard
Bun’en, the kirin physician, visited that night to check on Taiki. After the examination, he discussed Taiki’s condition and diet with Tokuyuu. Bun’en said he would send over another physician the next day to spell him off and thanked him for all his hard work.
“Leave everything to me,” Tokuyuu replied. “Please rest for a moment. I’ll make tea.”
Bun’en sank into a chair in the main hall. Tokuyuu expertly brewed him a cup of tea and then returned to Taiki’s bedside.
Generously wide and deep, the living room in the main hall was a spacious and comfortable room with a high ceiling. To the north, the room faced the gardens of the back courtyard. The south-facing wall sported large glass windows, along with a set of wide doors fit with glass panels that revealed the corridor and inner courtyard. Visible on the other side of the courtyard were the portico rooms where Keitou had set up house.
Folding screens inside the doors had been pushed aside so as not to obstruct the view. As a result, anybody approaching the main hall could be seen at once.
“Thank you for all you’ve done,” Kouryou said.
“No need to thank me. I am only doing my job.”
Kouryou smiled. The same title of “doctor” referred to a general practitioner, surgeon, or veterinarian, to name just a few of the many specialties. Besides seeing to the well-being of the emperor and nobles, they supervised the delivery of medical care at the administrative level. The “Yellow Doctor,” by contrast, was a court physician whose only patient was the kirin.
“I don’t imagine that leaves you on the best of terms with Asen,” Kouryou said
Bun’en scowled. “Assuming there are any terms to start with. As far as we are concerned, he is the enemy. He is the one who attacked the Taiho in the first place.”
“You’ve known about that all along, then?”
“What other explanation could there be? Only a grave injury inflicted on the Taiho could cause such a meishoku. Meaning that whatever happened after that can be laid at Asen’s feet alone. We are not the only ones who came to that conclusion. For several years now, it has been common knowledge throughout the palace. Asen whipped up the land gangs in Bun Province, seized His Highness, and attacked the Taiho.”
Kouryou leaned toward him. “Seized His Highness? You’re saying that Gyousou-sama was captured?”
Bun’en cocked his head to the side. “Or so I’ve been told. Officially he was declared dead. But one way or another, the White Pheasant has not fallen. So he must still live. A logical conclusion is that Asen is keeping him prisoner.”
“Inside the palace?”
“I have heard no rumors to that effect. If he is being held, then not in Kouki but in an imperial estate somewhere. For example, one of the provincial castles that Asen seized.”
Bun’en lowered his voice to rough whisper and asked, “Is that bastard Asen really the new emperor?”
Kouryou pondered the question before answering. “According to the Taiho,” was all he said, having decided that adding anything more at this juncture would not be prudent.
“Hard to imagine such a thing could ever happen.”
In unprecedented times, anything can happen, Kouryou recalled Rousan saying. He said aloud, “Do you think Rousan-sama has gone over to Asen’s side?”
“So it seems,” Bun’en responded with a sour look. I know nothing of the fine details. She resigned the office of Daishikuu and was appointed one of Asen’s advisors as Lord Privy Seal, though in actual fact she continues to direct the activities of the Ministry of Winter. Having been granted such privileges and liberties, little wonder that she should ally herself with Asen. Though as you saw yourself, they get along like oil and water. It might be more accurate to say she bought the freedom she wanted from Asen.”
“What about Chou’un?”
A contemptuous smile replaced the sour smile. “I’d say that he as well is less a loyal servant than another opportunist who attached himself to Asen to serve his own ends. When Asen took control of the palace, Chou’un promptly started acting on his behalf. When censorious voices accused Asen of usurpation, he not only took the lead in denying the charges, but accused the accusers of plotting treason against the emperor pro tempore. He subsequently purged the ranks of any officials who didn’t fall in line. As a result, Asen rewarded him with a big promotion. But that aside, he hasn’t speck of true loyalty to the man.”
“And the Chousai—”
“His Highness had many capable civil servants working for him, chief among them being Seirai-sama and his colleagues. They were placed in positions commensurate with their abilities and so put His Highness’s Imperial Court in order practically overnight. They were summarily cast aside. Almost none of them remain. He was one who did. Chou’un has no fealty to Gyousou-sama, which made him of Asen’s few allies. His portfolio expanded at a blinding speed. Before anyone knew it, he was named Chousai. Taking advantage of the fact that Asen does not care one whit about governance, he has the Imperial Court at his beck and call.”
“About that—” Kouryou again leaned in close. “Asen really has no interest in governing?”
It sure appeared that way to him. Even without seeing Hakkei Palace for himself, Kouryou had sensed for some time that Asen had cast the kingdom aside.
When Asen first usurped the throne, he issued a flurry of imperial edicts. He seemed to have specific goals in mind and was building a government to serve those ends. But as doubts about his coup d’état grew, and the flags of the rebels multiplied and the harshness of the reprisals escalated, Asen’s interest in the kingdom and its subjects dwindled away.
The kingdom held together as a kingdom, but only because the old organizational wheels kept turning out of sheer momentum. There was no sense that anything going on was the product of Asen’s will or intentions. And now that Kouryou had seen the facts on the ground, he had all the more reason to believe his intuition had been right all along.
“I’ve though for some time that Asen wasn’t actually doing anything, but is he really not doing anything? If so, then why? What did he covet the throne for in the first place?”
Bun’en shrugged. “That is a puzzle I cannot unravel. It’d be nice to just leave everything up to Chou’un, but all he cares about these days is expanding his power base. Asen’s disinterest in the kingdom means he can get away with doing nothing of substance too. Or maybe doing nothing is what Asen wanted all along, and everybody it catering to those desires by doing nothing too.”
What a strange tale this is, Kouryou thought. Isn’t the kingdom what Asen wanted? Why let it die on the vine?
“I’ve heard rumors that Asen surrounded himself with a strange retinue and they are only firming up the ranks as time goes on.”
Bun’en furrowed his brows. “You mean those marionettes? So it seems.”
“Who or what are they, exactly?”
“I do not know. A kind of illness. Some call it a curse. Because it mostly infects those who oppose Asen, they say Asen is casting the spell.”
“A spell—” The portfolio of the Ministry of Winter included the study of sorcery. Maybe Rousan had a hand in all this. “Does Asen have anybody else around him other than those marionettes?”
“When Asen stepped forward and declared himself the stand-in emperor, the Ministry of Heaven assigned a staff of servants to assist him. Well, I suppose they intended to. I’m told they’ve been remarkably absent from their duties. There should be valets and ladies-in-waiting serving him as well. No sign of them either.”
The Rokushin, where Asen was holed up, had become a decidedly strange place, Bun’en said. Nobody went near the place and Asen hardly never left.
“Even Chou’un. At the end of the day, it’s not like Asen has any inclination to run the kingdom with Chou’un. Rather, Asen leaves it up to Chou’un to do whatever he wants.”
“In other words, he’s given up on the kingdom.”
“In other words,” Bun’en agreed with a nod. “However, if Asen is the new emperor, shouldn’t he want to amend his ways? Setting aside the issue of whether that would actually benefit Tai.”
“So you can imagine the possibility of a big downside.”
“I am in no position to say one way or another. I have no way of divining the intentions of Heaven. But there can be no doubts about Asen’s usurpation. I cannot believe that Providence would condone the actions of anyone who committed such a grave sin. These events are strange by any estimation. In the first place, the conditions of the Imperial Court and the Imperial Palace are simply bizarre. Don’t you think so, Kouryou-dono?”
Kouryou didn’t know how to answer. In fact, he was confused. Seeing Rousan switch to Asen’s side was a shock. Yet at the same time she properly referred to Gyousou as Gyousou-sama, she spoke to Asen in the crudest of terms. He couldn’t wrap his head around what he’d seen and heard. Moreover, Asen didn’t rebuke Rousan for her behavior. As strange as the relationship between Asen and Rousan was, how they related to Chou’un was no less odd.
Chou’un and Rousan clearly saw eye-to-eye on little to nothing. Except that didn’t mean Asen and Rousan had pitted themselves against Chou’un. To start with, Asen occupied the Imperial Throne. Open antagonism on Chou’un’s part was out of the question. Nevertheless, Chou’un did not think highly of Asen and Asen had no respect for Chou’un.
The deserted palace, civil servants wandering about as if possessed, the incomprehensible relationships among the members of Asen’s senior staff—the sheer strangeness placed it all beyond anything he might have imagined. He had no idea how to react or respond.
Without a doubt, something here went very wrong at a very fundamental level.
“I shall allow you to return,” Asen said to Taiki. But Kouryou suspected that whatever came next, it wasn’t going to produce a simple solution, let alone hew to common sense.