Hills of Silver Ruins

Chapter 23

11-2 Chou’un left the Chousai’s office and headed west through a light flurry of snowflakes toward the remains of Jinjuu Manor. He first summoned Keitou at the portico room in Nightingale Villa and then proceeded with him to the main hall. Custom dictated that he kneel before Taiki, which annoyed him to no end.

He could grit his teeth and bear it with Asen. After all, Asen was the reason Chou’un was Chousai. Kneeling before somebody to whom he owned nothing offended his pride. But such humiliations were unavoidable in situations like this.

According to the expected formalities, he knelt as soon as he entered the hall, kowtowed, scooted forward on his knees, and kowtowed again.

“I have come here to inquire about a most pressing matter. Is the abdication of the emperor in this case an indispensable requirement?”

Taiki replied with an impassive look, “It is as far as I know.”

“As far as you know,” Chou’un echoed. “Meaning?”

p. 298

“Heaven does not communicate in words humans can comprehend. No voice descended from the skies declaring that an abdication must take place. Rather, I was struck by the impression that it was absolutely necessary, the one condition for succession that must be met.”

“Could we please get a straight answer—” an exasperated Chou’un started to say, but Taiki wasn’t finished.

“Abdication means that Gyousou-sama will pass away. There was a time when that prospect would have been more painful than my own death,” Taiki said, his voice tinged with sorrow. “However, now I consider it only an unfortunate outcome.” He looked at Chou’un. “In order to save Tai, Gyousou-sama must relinquish the throne. When he does, his life will end. But for the good of the people, there is no other way forward. Gyousou-sama is fully aware of the kingdom and its subjects. When he understands that his sacrifice will save them, I believe he will accept that fate.”

Standing off to the side in silence, Kouryou felt as if the ground were about to swallow him up. Could he possibly be speaking the truth?

When acting on behalf of the people, the kirin at times said unreasonable things. Though known as creatures of compassion, entirely against expectations, kirin could conduct themselves in decidedly discompassionate ways. Kouryou had learned that lesson well from the emperor and the kirin who chose him after the end of Emperor Kyou’s reign.

As far as the kirin was concerned, the people always had the first priority, and the emperor was but a servant of his subjects. Consequently, when the interests of the emperor and his subjects came into conflict, the kirin was not above rebuking the emperor using words and deeds so unsparing as to be hard to believe.

p. 299

The shock of realizing that this legendary creature of compassion called a kirin could also speak in such heartless terms brought to the fore that haunting sensation of standing face to face with an otherworldly being.

That is what I am feeling right now.

Chou’un must have been seized by the same apprehensions, for he bowed himself to the floor with a startled look on his face.

“I understand.”

“However, Asen-sama’s indecisiveness certainly has you in a bind. Your sole recourse at this juncture is to patiently continue to submit your reports to the emperor. But what if you publicly announced that Asen-sama was the new emperor? Asen-sama was designated the new emperor by the kirin and the enthronement ceremonies will take place in the near future. Or words to that effect.”

“A public announcement.”

“Wouldn’t that help to pacify the kingdom? If possible, at the same time, relief efforts on behalf of the people could commence. That as well should hasten the return of more peaceable conditions.”

“That is likely true, but—”

“Can we at least move forward in Zui Province? You will at some point have to return the authority of province lord to my offices.”

“It is not so much a matter of returning your authority,” Chou’un said, hanging his head. “The Taiho is the province lord of Zui.”

“Exactly,” Taiki said bluntly. “You heard Asen-sama condone my return. The matters under discussion also encompass my status as province lord. What do you have to say that regard?”

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“Such would undoubtedly be the case.”

“And yet the Zui provincial government shows no inclination to follow my directives. Is that because Shison is acting on his own? Or on your orders?”

Kouryou felt a jolt of surprise. When the question was posed in that fashion, there was only one way Chou’un could answer.

“Regardless of any such orders from me, Shison will naturally do as Shison sees fit, though definitely with no intention to slight the Taiho. Only out of concern for the wellbeing of the Taiho.”

“What I asked him to do he has not done. Is that because he simply does whatever strikes his fancy? Or—and I will ask you again—he is not following my lead because you ordered him not to?”

“Perish the thought!”

“Well, then. Has Shison grown too big for his britches? Sounds to me like grounds for dismissal.”

There was only answer to that question as well. Chou’un bowed his head, scraping the floor with his forehead. “As you wish.”

“Dismiss Shison and appoint Keitou the provincial prime minister.”

“That—” Chou’un glanced up at Taiki, but as if conceding he was on the losing end of this contest of wills, kept his mouth shut.

“I believe appointing the prime minister is the prerogative of the province lord. Or do I need the permission of the Chousai?”

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“No,” Chou’un replied.

Again, he could say nothing else. The appointment of the prime minister in fact required neither the approval of the Emperor or the Chousai.

“Unfortunately, the provincial ministers are not carrying out my requests. Please exercise your authority as Chousai to make them aware of how the status quo has changed.”

“Understood,” Chou’un said with deep bow.

From where he was standing, Kouryou could see the sweat coursing down the man’s neck.

Chou’un dragged himself out of Nightingale Villa, his mind a mass of confusion. For some odd reason, he realized, his legs were trembling.

The Taiki fixed in his memories was that of a young child. His predecessor, who served during the dynasty of Emperor Kyou, was also a gentle soul. Chou’un had expected his successor to be much the same, meaning that Chou’un could ignore him and at worst he would whine about it.

Does a kirin like him exist anywhere in this world?

Shison was an associate of his, which was why Chou’un made him the provincial prime minister. Chou’un couldn’t deny telling him that no matter what Taiki said, Shison could prevaricate to his heart’s content. He was certain that however angry Taiki got, he wouldn’t do anything.

And yet there was also no denying that Taiki had outwitted him, driven him into a corner, and forced him to agree with his line of logic.

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Is that boy really a kirin? Once again, the doubts rose up in his mind. Is that boy really Taiki?

But as long as Asen recognized him as such, Chou’un had no standing to argue otherwise.

He returned to his office and summoned Ansaku, the assistant Chousai. After instructing him to dismiss Shison and appoint Keitou province lord, he proceeded to unload on Ansaku in a major way.

“That kid thinks he can do whatever he feels like—”

“But—” Ansaku said consolingly, “the province lord definitely does have the authority to hire and fire the prime minister. If that’s what the Taiho wishes to do, you can’t stop him.”

“I know that!” Chou’un barked, then grumbled under his breath, I’m surrounded by idiots. He next instructed Ansaku to issue an official bulletin proclaiming that Asen was the new emperor.

“I see. That may indeed help to pacify the civil strife.”

“We’ve been told to save the people. Apparently, we stand accused of deliberately abandoning the people of Tai.”

Chou’un ground his teeth. They hadn’t abandoned anybody. Chou’un certainly hadn’t. Asen was the one who cast them aside. Purposeful neglect was his official policy, that Chou’un simply followed. Asen steered the ship ahead. Chou’un only trailed faithfully in his wake.

And then Asen became emperor, which was not at all a positive turn of events for Chou’un. If things continued as they were, the Providence which had at last smiled upon Asen could just as well abandon him.

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“Yes—that possibility does exist,” Chou’un murmured.

If Asen lost the Divine Will, and he and Taiki fell victim to the scourge of the shitsudou, then Chou’un would rule the kingdom until the accession of the next emperor. Such an outcome was not beyond the realm of possibility. There were even historical precedents of the Chousai serving as emperor pro tempore during eras of an empty throne. He could become emperor in both in name and reality.

Chou’un allowed himself a private smile.

Ansaku interrupted the moment in a small voice. “In the case of the shitsudou, it’d take around a decade for the next emperor to be enthroned. The current dynasty would end at that point.”

The shock of cruel reality invaded his thoughts. The enthronement of a new emperor would erase all his power and influence.

Ansaku was exactly right. The post of provisional emperor was but a passing fancy that would never pay off in the long run. A stable dynasty that ensured a long tenure for the Chousai promised a far better value. Even if the dynasty ended prematurely after he labored to save Tai but was thwarted at every turn by Asen, he only had to maintain that facade and distinguish himself in the next dynasty in order to survive.

Chou’un nodded. “By all means, we must make sure that Asen-sama’s accession is completed as soon as possible.”

For good or ill, he would see Asen seated upon the throne.

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