Hills of Silver Ruins

Chapter 6

13-6 Chou’un would see to it that Taiki paid a price for engaging in such willful behavior.

The official letter that arrived from the office of the Chousai said as much. Chou’un described how Taiki had spent the night sneaking about the Imperial Palace and ordered a redoubling of the security detail. For better or worse, the incident brought the feud between Taiki and Chou’un very much to Asen’s attention.

p. 57

Asen sniffed in contempt at the letter, that emphasized Taiki’s insolent behavior in terms that verged on the comical, and tossed it to the floor. The undersecretary who had delivered the letter stood there expressionless.

Asen said with a dismissive wave of his hand, “Tell him his petition has been heard.”

The undersecretary simply continued to stand there, blank eyes staring off into space, not looking at Asen, not looking at anything at all.

Asen clucked to himself. He got to his feet and left the room. He proceeded through the courtyard to the main hall. He told the civil servant sitting listlessly in the antechamber that if any more such missives arrived from the office of the Chousai, he was to acknowledge their receipt and send them back.

“And do something about that person in my room.”

“Yes, sir,” the bureaucrat mechanically replied, his face equally blank. Not even waiting for Asen to leave, he jerked into motion like a marionette. Asen crossed back across the courtyard and continued down the corridor along the courtyard rooms, then stopped and observed as the undersecretary was escorted from his room.

Those whose souls had been stolen by the jisen could be controlled though the use of talismans, which at the same time held progression of the disease in check. But there were limits to that solution. Even with two layers of defense around the palace, the depletion of souls continued unabated, like air being drawn out of a leather bag, until the afflicted person resembled little more than a living corpse.

Has that man really been with me for three years?

p. 58

The immediate application of the talismans had held the disease at bay for only three years. The initial infection resulted in the cessation of idle talk and an inability to act at will, which turned the afflicted into docile sheep. That condition did not last long. His soul depleted, the victim’s life took on an ephemeral existence. He lost any sense of purpose and interest in the outside world. He lost even the ability to speak. If lit on fire, he wouldn’t react in the slightest, not even utter a scream as he was consumed.

Off to the side, a voice called out to him. “Another one bites the dust.”

Asen turned and glared at the speaker. Rousan leaned with her elbows on the railing that lined the courtyard corridor.

“Nothing I had anything to do with,” Asen shot back over his shoulder.

He strode into the main hall. Rousan brazenly tagged along and plopped herself down in Asen’s chair without a second thought.

“I heard the Taiho snuck in here last night,” she said with undisguised delight.

Rousan had surely placed spies around Asen. How many supposedly ill civil servants were only faking the symptoms? Or she recruited them among the staff and servants. She had informants in the Office of the Chousai and in the Rikkan too. Just as Asen did.

“Chou’un is absolutely fit to be tied.” Rousan grinned, all the more pleased to be the bearer of bad news. “What a funny fellow he is. He really has come to see the Taiho as his mortal enemy.”

p. 59

“So it seems.”

“And? What was on the Taiho’s mind?”

“He said I should get out more.”

“Well, he would say that. The Taiho wants to save the people. He needs to find a way forward before they are crushed beneath the falling snow.”

 “If that’s what he wants to do, then he should go ahead and do it,” Asen responded curtly.

A teasing smile rose to Rousan’s face. “You don’t say. You never have forgiven him for choosing Gyousou-sama.” She laughed. What a small-minded man you are, her laughter said. “Whether we’re talking about Chou’un or talking about you, every one of you is proof that a deeply jealous man is a frightening force to be reckoned with.”

Her words seemed to confirm that, as far as Rousan was concerned, jealousy toward Gyousou was behind Asen’s usurpation of the throne. Rousan wasn’t the only one. Pretty much everybody jumped to the same conclusion.

Even if he was only mouthing the words, Taiki alone said that was out of the question.

Asen didn’t think he envied Gyousou at all, at least not consciously. These thoughts on his mind, he stepped to the balcony and looked out at the placid sea.

When had he and Gyousou first met? It was during the dynasty of Emperor Kyou, if his memories served him right. He was a regimental commander in the Palace Guard of the Left when the rumors first reached his ears.

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Asen entered the army at the age of fifteen. At eighteen, he was chosen to attend the military academy. After that, he earned a recommendation to the affiliated university. He graduated at twenty-six and was commissioned a battalion commander.

A battalion commander was in charge of five hundred soldiers organized into five companies. An army was made up of only twenty-five companies. It was hardly rare for a military academy graduate to also attend university. But rising to the battalion level was not at all common. Much was expected of Asen and he answered those expectations in full measure.

He was promoted to regimental commander with extraordinary speed, and eventually to general.

Asen recalled it was the year he was promoted to regimental commander. Just like Asen, and to the amazement of everyone around him, another person graduated from university and then rose from the battalion to the regimental level in similarly short order.

That person was Gyousou.

Gyousou concluded his university studies at twenty-four and was commissioned a battalion commander. Though following in Asen’s footsteps, Gyousou hit the same milestones three years faster. Asen was promoted to regimental commander in five years, Gyousou in two.

Asen served as a regimental commander for three years before being promoted to general in the Palace Guard of the Center. At around the same time, Gyousou was appointed general of the Zui Provincial Guard of the Center. Though their ranks were the same, the positions did not enjoy the same status. Still, in terms of their respective responsibilities, they were equivalent.

In a flash Gyousou had caught up with Asen. Now they stood shoulder to shoulder.

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Asen was not upset in the least. Quite the opposite, he was thrilled. He might even admit it made his blood race. He’d finally found a friendly rival. Having a competitor was a good thing. Until then, nobody had been able to keep up with him. He’d had his fill of the second-rate rabble whose hostility actually did arise out of jealousy and envy.

After every promotion, he heard rumors about how adept he was at flattering his superiors and ingratiating himself. Largely in jest, he was tagged with the azana of “Asen” around this time. Ostensibly the characters meant “the chosen one,” though he knew full well the actual intent behind the sobriquet was anything but.

Nevertheless, Asen used the name free of any such concerns. He had no need to curry favor with anybody. And neither did Gyousou. Whatever rank or reward he desired, he put in the work and made it his. He disciplined his body and mind, studied hard, never shirked manual labor when it was called for, and constantly pushed himself forward. Any honor or achievement he desired thus fell into his grasp.

As far as Asen could tell, Gyousou ran his life according to the same rules.

Once he set his sights on a goal, he kept moving toward it, even a step or two at a time. If someone edged ahead of him, he’d accept the challenge and run faster. That’s what it came down to. No matter how far ahead they might be, he was still in the race to win.

Too many of his colleagues took a different approach. They devoted less effort to staying in front than they did to making sure nobody caught up from behind. Single out a competitor, trip him up and drag him backwards. If that didn’t work, they’d convince themselves there were easier ways to get ahead. They’d shut their eyes to their own lack of effort and instead go to great lengths concocting rationalizations about how anyone who succeeded did so because of some trick or loophole.

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But Gyousou was a man who forged his own path. It felt good fighting for first place with someone like that. In the same way, when they met as generals, Asen was honestly delighted that Gyousou was there to level the playing field.

Of course, there were those who spoke of them as enemies or adversaries. Asen never thought of Gyousou in those terms. He never wanted to come in second behind him, but the impulse did not arise out of any kind of hatred or loathing. They weren’t particularly close, simply because being worthy rivals ruled it out. When they met on occasion, they’d have a good laugh and a good time together, and anybody looking on must have thought they were the best of friends.

And yet I struck him down.

Asen looked at his feet.

Gyousou was an opponent worth competing with and Asen enjoyed the competition. Well, that was definitely true in the beginning. Both enjoyed the trust and loyalty of their retainers. Their achievements were acknowledged by many. The emperor appointed them to important positions. They were called the jewels in the crown, the two mighty rivals, the dragon and tiger.

When did it start? That indescribable feeling of suffocating?

Asen and Gyousou are two peas in a pod.

So many people said so. To be sure, as military men, their means and methods often matched up, as did their personal histories. So did the back and forth as their careers developed later on, each repeatedly taking the lead as they traveled along similar paths.

Asen’s only equal was Gyousou. Gyousou’s only equal was Asen.

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Perhaps because of that, he was often said to be just like Gyousou. And it was the same with Gyousou. “He’s just like Asen,” he heard over and again.

They share the same surname of Boku. They resemble each other even in that respect.

It weighed on him so heavily he felt at times he couldn’t breathe, not with his own shadow standing there in front of him. He couldn’t help but be aware of it every hour of the day. Because when his own worth fell behind that of the shadow, it was he who would become the shadow of his rival. He had to remain invincible. If he failed on the field of battle and his fame and fortunes suffered as a result, that was no different than saying he’d become a mere reflection of the man who’d bested him.

The decisive moment came was when Gyousou looked victory in the face and cast it aside.

Emperor Kyou ordered him to mobilize his army. The dynasty was rife with conflict at the time. Local governments constantly objected to imperial policy and disobeyed edicts issued by the emperor. With orders to subjugate the malcontents, Gyousou was dispatched to Sui Province.

Asen had triumphed in his own subjugation campaign just before that, and so had stolen a march on Gyousou. He was sure that Gyousou, in turn, would fly into battle to secure a decisive victory for himself and even the scales.

And yet Gyousou failed to sally forth. Quite to the contrary, he flat out refused. After repeated ultimatums from the throne, he did the last thing anyone expected. He resigned his commission, relinquished his listing in the Registry of Wizards, returned to a life as an ordinary mortal, and left government service.

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The flabbergasted Asen could not comprehend what led Gyousou to make such a choice. Well, no. He did understand. Emperor Kyou’s tax policies in regards to the provinces deserved to be called heartless. The local civil servants voiced objections and remonstrated with Emperor Kyou for his extravagant lifestyle. Gyousou undoubtedly determined that reason was on their side.

In short, Gyousou cast aside victory for the sake of victory and chose instead to follow the high road.

It wasn’t that Asen necessarily took a disliking to this decision. At the time, he had a hard time putting his own thoughts and emotions into words. In response to the same imperial orders, Asen mobilized his army and Gyousou refused to. Given the decisive manner in which Gyousou acted, he had justice and righteousness on his side.

Gyousou was right. Asen belatedly concluded that he too should have refused the order. But at the time, the thought never occurred to him. He marched off to battle in order to engage in one more contest with Gyousou, and so eagerly racked up a win that went against moral principles.

The sweet triumph turned to bitter dregs in his mouth.

After gleefully sallying forth, happy to step once more into the lead, how must Gyousou look at him now? When the edict was handed down, Asen saw it as a chance for the two of them to show their stuff. He had taken a step ahead in their contest. Of course, Gyousou would be aware of his relative disadvantage, and aware he’d have to score a win to pull even with him. Asen was sure that, fully cognizant of where he stood, Gyousou would throw himself into the battle. The odds said he would return home with another feather in his cap.

That was what made them worthy rivals.

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With the best of intentions in mind, Asen observed Gyousou with a keen curiosity to see what he would do in order to once again stand shoulder to shoulder with him. When Asen set forth with his troops, he was absolutely certain that Gyousou felt the same.

But now the questions crept in for the first time. What did Gyousou think of him marching off for the sake of another notch in his belt? How did Gyousou view Asen’s competitive instincts in the first place?

The only one so happy to have a worthy rival may have been me.

If Gyousou had been struggling alongside him to seize that brass ring, would he have thrown away such a golden opportunity? Perhaps the only one competing with anybody for anything was Asen. Any such inclination had been nowhere on Gyousou’s horizon from the very beginning.

Asen actually could identify. Many of their colleagues seethed with animosity toward Asen, while Asen took no notice of them at all. He didn’t care to compete with them. The thought never crossed his mind, certainly not when it came to the likes of them.

It was entirely possible that the relationship between Gyousou and Asen was no different. The entire contest existed only in Asen’s mind. Gyousou never had and never would see Asen as some sort of friendly rival.

Such were the feelings of shame and humiliation, of inner rage and self-loathing, that he did not know what to do with himself. In that moment was born his abiding hatred for Gyousou.

And yet, for good or for ill, Gyousou disappeared from before his eyes. It seemed to Asen that time itself had left Gyousou behind.

Except nobody else did.

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“If only Gyousou were here,” people said. They looked at Asen and saw Gyousou in his place. Asen couldn’t put Gyousou behind him even if he wanted to.

And then in the midst of all this handwringing, Gyousou returned. Not even Asen was clear on the whys and wherefores. A thousand reasons were bandied about, but no one knew the whole truth, only that Emperor Kyou had forgiven Gyousou for his insubordination and ordered him to return to the palace.

Emperor Kyou warmly welcomed him back. His reinstatement was widely praised.

Why? Asen wondered. Wasn’t he accused of betraying the emperor? Had Asen been so insufficient for the job?

From some unknown quarter, he was overwhelmed by feelings very much akin to fear. After that, Asen continued to pursue success and achievements. He always just managed to step out from behind the shadow. He had never failed, not once, which was not true of his shadow.

But there was no sanctuary to be found in those facts. At some point, the relative merits of the two generals had been weighed in the balance and Asen had been found wanting. That was when envious courtiers began disparaging him as a pale imitation of Gyousou.

The sympathetic response to any error on Asen’s part was, “Well, what do you expect? He’s not Gyousou.” His successes were praised as “Just like Gyousou would have done.”

To an outside observer, any differences between them may have been slight, but Gyousou was on top and Asen didn’t quite measure up. He had his deficiencies, but in a pinch could prove a useful substitute. He wasn’t that inferior, so any job Gyousou wasn’t available for could be handed off to him.

Any hint of a competition between them became an undisguised agony. With the emperor straying from the Way, the agonies only multiplied. Ever since the first inklings that the dynasty was foundering on the rocks, he’d been pursued by a growing sense of horror.

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When the emperor died, a new emperor would replace him. Asen didn’t think it too self-aggrandizing to assume that those harboring the highest expectations about that eventuality were himself and Gyousou. When the emperor passed away and the yellow standards were raised, they would embark on the Shouzan. The kirin would choose one of them. The chosen one became the new emperor. The one not chosen became his retainer.

That moment would settle once and for all which one of them was the real thing and which one of them was the mere reflection of the other.

In the grip of that terror, Asen could not accompany Gyousou on the Shouzan. He could not bear the thought of them standing side by side before the kirin, waiting for decision to be handed down. The answer would probably turn out the same as it had been all along. He may have suspected even then that the kirin would choose Gyousou.

His premonition proved true, for the kirin chose Gyousou.

Of course, he thought. At the same time, he couldn’t help thinking that things might have turned out differently had he gone on the Shouzan. But their ranks and roles had been set in stone. Giving himself over to pointless enmity would accomplish nothing.

His retainers did not agree, and some of them still got all fired up comparing Asen and Gyousou. Asen couldn’t make them forget everything that had come before. That feeling of drowning on dry land, of choking down every lungful of air. As long as Gyousou was there, Asen couldn’t breathe.

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He thought of leaving Tai. But he never followed through. Doing so would only prove he’d been a pale imitation of Gyousou all along. He had to outstrip Gyousou and show it to the world. But he could only surpass Gyousou now by driving him from the throne, taking it for himself, and building a dynasty better than anything Gyousou could have achieved.

Questions were raised from the very beginning of the Imperial Court of Gyousou’s suitability for the role, along with misgivings that his would be a short reign. A “whirlwind emperor.” Gyousou was too unsparing and too relentless, said the chorus of doubters. He was trying to do too much.

None other than Taiki, the kirin who chose Gyousou, seemed concerned. There definitely was discord amongst the emperor’s retainers, even though the imperial accession had just taken place.

Rumors of a whirlwind emperor swayed few, but claims that Gyousou was acting rashly and taking on more than he could handle found purchase. In fact, Gyousou did appear to be moving at an unsustainable pace. He was trying to leave all the surrounding bewilderment and confusion behind them, bolster the confidence of his retainers, and harness the force of those whirlwinds to reform the Imperial Court in one clean sweep.

Those running alongside him were all on board with the plan, just as the ones who couldn’t keep up had the feeling this whirlwind approach would eventually cause a catastrophe.

At the same time, many of those insisting it was all too much and too soon were clearly spurred on by jealousy and envy. Most busily engaged in backbiting and spreading slanderous gossip were nothing more than scheming two-bit villains. But Asen well knew that even two-bit villains were quite capable of causing a great deal of damage, all the more so when they were devoid of convictions and had no pride in their work.

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On the other hand, it was entirely possible that, as the rumors said, Gyousou’s dynasty was destined to end before it truly began. Asen clung to those expectations. If they proved true, then Asen still had a chance to triumph over Gyousou. He only had to wait him out and inherit the throne after Gyousou.

He knew all along he was indulging in the wishful thinking of an underdog. But leave it to Rousan to shatter that last ray of hope as well.

Rousan said, “Didn’t you know? An emperor’s immediate successor cannot share his same surname.”

To tell the truth, Asen admitted, he didn’t.

“This isn’t a matter of there simply being no precedent for such a thing. It’s part and parcel of Providence. Nowhere is this rule written down in the Divine Decrees, but it carries the same weight.”

Logic dictated that it wouldn’t be impossible for him to live through Gyousou’s dynasty and the one that followed. But by that time, would there be anybody left in Asen’s circle who remembered who Gyousou was? If there was no one left who knew Gyousou and thought Asen the better man, who agreed that Gyousou was a pale imitation of the real thing, then what was the point?

Rousan’s words shoved the cold, hard reality of the situation in his face. Asen would never shed the label of the “imitation Gyousou.”

“It’s too bad,” Rousan said. “You should have gone on the Shouzan.”

Asen shook his head. The situation was hopeless. But he possessed enough discernment to know he had to appear above the fray. He would not so readily acknowledge his own despair.

He said blithely, “Even if I had gone on the Shouzan, the result would be the same. Gyousou is the emperor.”

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“You think so?”

Asen gave Rousan a puzzled look. Rousan looked back at him, an enigmatic smile on her lips. “What if I told you that the kirin did not choose an actual person?”

“Not an actual person?”

“The kirin acts upon the intentions of Heaven and chooses the emperor. That much is definitely true. But Heaven does not actually whisper the name of the new emperor in the kirin’s ear. Heaven communicates its intentions through instinct and intuition. In the world of mere mortals, it might be described as getting the gist across with a wink and a nod. But can anyone be certain such a system will never give rise to error?”

“Nonsense. The kirin has the last word when he speaks the Word of Heaven.”

“Indeed. The Word of Heaven is absolute. Except Heaven never utters a name. If Heaven did, there would be no need for an elaborate ritual like the Shouzan. As long as the kirin got the message that this particular person was the next emperor, he could find him and tell him directly.”


“It’s called the aura of the emperor, the imperial aura. The sign or sense of the new emperor who has been acknowledged by Heaven. That is all it is, in fact.”

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Rousan paused, then said with a cynical smile, “What is communicated to the kirin is nothing more than a vague impression. The person he must select as the next emperor feels like thus and so. You and Gyousou-sama are very much alike, so the impression grasped by the kirin should be quite similar as well. If both of you were standing in front of him, who would Taiki choose?”

Asen said nothing. He didn’t move a muscle.

“I don’t know either. But there is one thing I do know. Gyousou-sama went on the Shouzan. You did not. Gyousou-sama met Taiki before you did.”

“So that’s why the Taiho chose him emperor?”

Rousan didn’t answer. She gazed at Asen, her mouth turned into a thin smile. That look provided Asen with a sufficient push to surmount whatever was finally holding him back from his next course of action.

Thinking back about it now, Rousan looked at Asen with the same cynical smile as she did on that day. Rousan never hid her scorn. As far as she was concerned, Asen was the lesser man compared to Gyousou. Nothing would shake that conviction

Then why did she never stop stirring things up and egging him on?

“What do you want?” he asked her. He’d asked her the same question countless times before. Her answer was always the same.

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“I don’t want anything,” Rousan said coolly and got her feet. “There’s nothing I want from you. Or rather, whatever I want, the likes of you can’t provide. After all, you’re only an imitation of the real thing.”

Then why was she always enticing him to strike down Gyousou?”

“How would you deal with Taiki?”

“I’d let him do whatever he wants,” Rousan said without a second thought. “The Taiho is a kirin. What the kirin wants is plain as day. He wants to save the people of Tai. And anyway, saving the people is not a bad thing. All the better for you, in fact. Neglect your own subjects any more than you already have and that long desired Divine Will is likely to desert you once again.”

“Is that what you want or not? You’re the one trying to give the Divine Will of your master to me.”

Rousan shrugged. “If Providence so decides, then so be it. You’ve done nothing with the throne since getting your hands on it. Once you’re branded as useless, with the shitsudou as the inevitable result, I want to be there to witness that rack and ruin sure to follow.”

Rousan was a master of subterfuge. She refused to offer forthright answers to Asen’s questions. He sensed no authenticity in her words. Her actions never following from what she said.

p. 73

What is she thinking? he wondered, and casually said aloud, “Maybe this obsession of yours with jealousy is a reflection of your own envy?”

Rousan responded to that statement with a blank look.

“If I stray from the Way, the Taiho will die. As far as the emperor is concerned, the kirin is his lifelong partner. And that is something you cannot abide.”

In other words, Rousan idolized Gyousou and envied Taiki, whose existence was indivisible from Gyousou. Thus she wished to destroy them both.

Rousan tipped her head to the side and appeared to give the idea serious thought. A moment later, she burst out laughing. “That is funny. I mean, that is really funny.”

She chortled for a while before explaining, “It is true that I don’t hold the Taiho in the same high esteem as the rest of you. But I don’t think much of emperors either. Oh, I do admire Gyousou-sama, but emperors and kirin are all the same to me. I couldn’t care less about any of them.”

Another nod of her head and she added, “No, I wouldn’t say I couldn’t care less. I do care. I am very curious about the Providence of the world.”

“The Providence of the world?”

“My respect for Gyousou-sama notwithstanding, my curiosity wins out. I am intrigued by the way the world and the emperor are connected to each other and to fate. If this occurs, what will happen next? That’s what I want to know.”

p. 74

Unable to follow her line of argument, Asen simply gazed back at her. Rousan nodded, as if to emphasize her agreement with herself. “I am intrigued by the Providence that attends to the emperor and the kirin. But, you see, no one has any answers to my questions. My only recourse is to put those theories to the test and observe the results for myself.”

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