13-5 Taiki closed the door as softly as possible. A gust of air trailed in his wake. The hinges faintly creaked. He slipped into the pitch black and waited for his eyes to grow accustomed to the darkness. He couldn’t hold his breath forever. But no one challenged his presence. For a moment, he thought no one was there. Then he saw a faint light and heard a faint voice.
The voice was muffled and flat and seemed to be singing a song.
Brave knights sally forth to slay and be slain
Leaving behind their riderless mounts
That wander about loudly neighing and braying
Peering through the fretwork folding screen, he observed a man lying on the ottoman next to the window. Light flowing from a low corner of the room coiled about the wan moonlight shining through the glass.
Taiki was struck by an unexpected thought. He’d never imagined that Asen, holed up in the Rokushin, spent the nights like this. All alone, with no one at his beck and call. Perhaps his current state reflected as well his inclination to cast aside the governance of the kingdom.
The shadow suddenly spoke. “Why are you here?”
He had noticed the intruder in his midst.
“Awfully dark in here, isn’t it?” Taiki said.
Asen raised his head in evident relief. He set the leg propped on the ottoman down on the floor and turned toward the sound of Taiki’s voice.
“Or do you spend every night in here like this?”
Though Taiki hung back in the shadows and out of sight, Asen’s silhouette looked straight at him.
“You surprised me. How did you manage to make it this far?”
“This is in the Imperial Palace. My Imperial Palace. I can go wherever I want.”
Asen got to his feet. He stepped forward and retrieved the lantern sitting on the floor. Holding it over his head. Asen’s face at last came into view. A wry smile rose to his face, “I will ask again, why are you here?”
“I have submitted numerous reports and requests to your office and have not received a single reply. I decided to pay you an unannounced visit for a face-to-face meeting.”
Asen used the lantern he was holding to light the candlestands here and there. The room grew brighter as each flame flared to life.
“You can take those concerns to Chou’un.”
“Really? You’re leaving everything in Chou’un hands?”
“I hadn’t intended to, but—” Asen sat back down again on the ottoman. “Frankly, it’s all the same to me.”
Taiki sighed. “Didn’t you overthrow Gyousou-sama’s reign because you were dissatisfied with his governance?”
“Ah,” Asen said, his smile now more bitter than wry. “Do kirin always see everything with the best of intentions in mind? Emperors throughout history have been assassinated and pretenders have taken their place. Because you think they disagreed about the style of governance?”
“You say otherwise?”
“Oh, I am sure you can find the rare exception. But regicide more likely arises out of jealousy or ordinary contempt for the sitting emperor.”
“In your case as well?”
Asen laughed softly. “I’ll hold off on answering that question for now. Which reason would you prefer?”
“I do not think you are that sort of person.”
Evidently caught off guard by this response, Asen looked up at Taiki. “Oh?”
“If you truly despised Gyousou-sama, would you have made such meticulous preparations? Didn’t you harbor some discontent with Gyousou-sama? Were you unhappy with the way he treated you? Or with his administration?”
“You didn’t mention jealousy. Out of courtesy for me?”
“It’s out of the question.”
“What a strange thing to say. Wouldn’t that be the first reason offered?”
“If this all began with jealousy, I imagine you would be more self-satisfied and fuller of yourself by now. With the object you envied now in your grasp, it’d make no sense to cast it aside.”
Asen said with an amused smile, “Perhaps casting it aside and trampling it underfoot is how I drive the melancholy from my mind.”
“It doesn’t look to me like you’ve done anything to drive any melancholy anywhere.”
“Hmph,” Asen responded, a muffled chortle tinged by sarcasm and self-derision. “What do you want?”
“At the very least, restore my authority as lord of Zui Province. Winter has arrived in earnest. The people need aid and assistance.”
“Again, you say the strangest things. The Taiho is Province Lord of Zui. There is nothing to restore.”
“In title. In fact, nothing I tell anybody to do gets done.”
“Then I suggest you take your complaints to Chou’un.”
Taiki ignored that aside. “The people require aid and assistance, and the sooner the better. If we wait until you are enthroned as emperor, it may be too late.”
“So you’re saying this so-called Divine Will of yours includes that as well?”
What is with this guy? Taiki wondered to himself.
Asen demonstrated no interest in governing whatsoever. He didn’t appear to care whether the kingdom continued to exist or not. If Tai went to rack and ruin, he seemed to be saying, so be it. But why was he so indifferent about the throne? Wasn’t this the throne he overthrew Gyousou in order to possess?
“At least take a step outside and look at the world. Are you just going to let Chou’un keep interfering even in the prerogatives of the Saiho? If nothing else, try imposing some discipline on how things get done around here.”
“You want me to tell everyone to stop getting in the way of the Taiho? There is no guarantee they will obediently listen to such a request in the first place.”
“You condone the emperor being taken for granted like that?”
“It hardly matters whether I do or not. Chou’un will think and do whatever strikes his fancy. He simply hides those cards whenever he is called on the carpet.”
“I am asking you,” Taiki said with a direct look. “Save the people of Tai. If you won’t, then I will. Tell Chou’un and his coterie to stay out of my way.”
“If that is what the Taiho desires, then I shall bear it in mind.”
“And do you think we could meet on a more regular basis?”
“I shall bear that in mind too.” He raised his voice. “Can I get someone in here?”
Taiki wasn’t done, but he was at a loss as to how to get Asen to act on anything. He hadn’t grasped the first clue. Before he could untangle that riddle, an aide-de-camp and his assistants ran in.
“Escort the Taiho back to the villa.”
With polite and yet resolute resolve, they grasped him by the arms. These civil servants didn’t appear the slightest bit surprised. The expressions on their faces could be best described as mechanical. In normal times, their actions—laying hands on the Saiho and forcibly removing him—would be unforgivable.
“Increase the security patrols. I can’t have people wandering in here whenever they feel like it.”
“I have one more request,” Taiki said over his shoulder as he was getting manhandled by the bevy of bureaucrats. “I need Seirai’s assistance. Please reinstate Seirai.”
“You make a lot of requests.” Asen stood there and grinned.
“Seirai is my official tutor.”
“You said it yourself. Don’t go taking the emperor for granted. In that case, all the more reason for him to fess up about the Imperial Treasury. I need those ledgers and he needs to be punished.”
Having already been dragged out of the room, Taiki could no longer see Asen. He could only hear his voice.
“Yes, it’s about time I imposed some discipline on how things get done around here!”
Taiki was forcibly returned to Nightingale Villa, where he was finally released. He was reassuring Kouryou and the rest of the night staff that he was fine and it was no big deal when Chou’un came running in, his face bright red and stiff as a board.
“What self-indulgent games have you been up to?”
“And by self-indulgent you mean?”
“No one may meet with His Highness. What were you thinking, sneaking into the Rokushin?”
“No one told me I couldn’t see him. He never said so himself. I would hardly call doing what Asen-sama himself had not expressly forbidden indulging myself. Are you saying I require somebody’s permission?”
Chou’un’s mouth twisted in evident displeasure. “Well, he doesn’t want to see you. He told me to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The Taiho is hereafter forbidden from entering the Rokushin.”
“If that is what Asen-sama wishes, then Asen-sama can tell me himself.”
Chou’un raised his voice. “As far as that goes, I am speaking on behalf—”
Taiki interrupted him before he could continue. “I will also make myself perfectly clear. Chou’un, you are hereafter forbidden from entering Nightingale Villa. This is the last time you will march in here like you owned the place.”
Chou’un’s mouth dropped open, his eyes wide with amazement. His body shook with rage. On the verge of shouting out a retort, he swallowed his rage and said with a curt bow, “Understood.”
He whirled around and rushed out of the room. Watching him leave, Kouryou said, “Taiho, are you sure this is the best course of action?”
Kouryou took in the cool expression on Taiki’s face and then directed his attention to Chou’un’s hasty departure. To tell the truth, it felt good watching Chou’un get his comeuppance. Except he was the kind of man who only got more vindictive after being put in his place. Anger the Chousai, even in jest, and he could make life difficult for them later on.
“I doubt currying favor with him would make any difference down the road.”
“That may be so, but—”
Falling in line behind Chou’un in no way guaranteed that he would show Taiki any more consideration than he did now. Any restraint on their part would only give his ego more room to grow. The best they could expect from him was contempt and neglect.
But openly defying him was bound to provoke a response. Up until now, he had stood like a wall in their way, blocking any attempts to advance their agenda. After this, he could well come straight at them in undisguised opposition.