he freezing wind filled the air with white snowflakes. Every gust of wind carried with it sheets of powdered snow. It was impossible to discern whether the dancing snowflakes fell from the sky or were whipped up from recent snowfalls. Collecting in the shadows and windbreaks, the drifts gradually grew to the size of rolling hills.
Snow covered the compact courtyard, coming halfway up to the knee at the deepest. Only the walkways were swept clean. Snow cascaded across the paving stones like an ocean surf, tracing delicate patterns on the frozen hard surface.
Risai glanced over her shoulder. “How are you holding up in all this cold?”
She leaned back again Hien, who knelt there amidst the straw. Hien rested her big head on her forelegs and breathed softly, filling the air with a misty fog.
The quality of the stables at Fukyuu Temple was lacking, to say the least. The walls were sieves of holes. The wind filled the stalls with cold drafts. The small mountain of bedding straw offered only meager protection. Risai couldn’t help but feel guilty about having to leave Hien in a frigid place like this.
As she absently stroking Hien’s head, Risai heard the approach of muffled footsteps. Houto poked his head into the stall.
“I figured you’d be here.”
“Kenchuu stopped by.”
Risai got to her feet. Are you going? Hien raised her head as if to ask. Risai stroked her muzzle and apologized. She left the stables with Houto and exited Fukyuu Temple through the back gate. Early in the morning, the streets were mostly empty. This was the season when people holed up inside their houses as much as possible.
Pulling up her scarf around her nose, Risai hurried down the street. The weather had turned worse of late. The cold seeped into her bones. Ever since they returned from Rouan, every ounce of heat had deserted her body. She couldn’t stay warm. Her hands and feet often felt like they were encased in blocks of ice. But she urged herself on and picked up the pace.
Kenchuu was waiting in the living room of the safe house. He stood and bowed when Risai entered the room.
“Thanks for going to the trouble, especially at this time of year. What brings you here?”
“I received a message from Sekirin Temple.”
Upon hearing rumors of Asen’s enthronement, they had visited one of the shrines in the Sekirin Temple circuit. Perhaps word had gotten back to him. But why was Kenchuu running errands for Sekirin Temple?
“Kenchuu, do you have connections with Sekirin Temple?”
Instead of answering the question, Kenchuu said, “The head priestess would like to see you.”
Risai craned her head to the side in confusion. But this wasn’t an invitation they could afford to refuse. Urged on by Kenchuu, they headed for Sekirin Temple, perched atop a mountain that rose over the city to the northeast
They had previously visited a shrine associated with Sekirin Temple. This time their destination was the head temple. From the start, the temple had devoted itself to ascetic practice and training and was not easily accessible by pilgrims, even true believers. Attesting to this policy, the towering gate at the end of the long flight of stone steps was shut and secured.
Kenchuu knocked on the side door. The gate opened from within. A young Taoist dressed in white robes greeted them with a bow. He escorted them deep inside the monastery. The buildings in Sekirin Temple all displayed the bare minimum of ornamentation and a meager use of color or paint. At the same time, the snow had been swept from the stone walkways, revealing the glistening cobblestones, while beautiful fields of white covered the courtyards, untrampled by a single footprint or stray leaf.
No refugees crowded the temples grounds, that were filled only with the frozen and tranquil air.
“This way,” their guide said. He took them to the east side of a building annex at the back of the compound and showed them to the main room. The doors were closed, likely to keep out the cold. The smoke from incense wafted about the hall. The wan glow from a skylight shone through the dusky interior, illuminating a platform in the center of the room. The platform was elevated a step higher than the rest floor.
A small old woman sat in a chair on the platform.
“Thank you for coming. I am Moku’u.” The priestess nodded to them from the platform. “As you can see, in my advanced years, my limbs do not work as well as they should. It was presumptuous of me, I know, but please forgive the impertinence of summoning you to my presence.”
People were assembled around the platform to the right and left. Half appeared to be Taoists dressed in brown robes. The rest were ordinary civilians. Among them was a boy of twelve or thirteen.
Risai said in a small voice, “Kaisei.”
The boy they’d met at the side of the grave in Rouan. A step to the side and behind Kaisei, hanging his head, was Boukyuu, the assistant village manager of Rouan. Several more people stood further back, watching over them. In this group was a woman Risai thought she recognized, maybe someone she’d seen in Rouan.
“You must be wondering why I so abruptly summoned these people I do not know and have not met. I will explain in due course. Please sit down.”
Moku’u indicated a row of chairs in front of the platform. Risai’s group lined up and sat down. A white-robed priest appeared with tea. In the meantime, Moku’u confirmed the names of Risai and her companions and then waited for the priest to depart.
“Risai-sama, I assume you remember Kaisei. A week ago, this Kaisei came knocking at the door to the temple.”
Over a span of six days, the boy had traveled from Rouan to Rin’u by himself through the freezing snow and appealed to the priests there. Rouan had been hiding a military commander. But those same villagers conspired to kill him. That was what he told them.
“Kaisei—” Startled, Risai turned her attention to him.
“Because it was evening when you left the village. All the adults said it was too dangerous. I wasn’t scared.”
“That was a reckless thing to do all by yourself. You could have at least asked us.”
“And you would have stopped me, right? I can’t trust adults, and I trust the government even less. The soldiers we were hiding left as well. I didn’t know where else to turn. A Taoist temple was my last resort.”
“Are you a follower of Sekirin Temple, Kaisei?”
“Not really. But my mom and dad really respected Moku’u-sama. They always said what an honorable person she was. I was sure if anybody would listen to me, it would be Moku’u-sama.”
“I thank you. In order to make your request, you came to this temple by yourself and with no good traveling clothes. That being the case, I feel I must respond in kind to such a display of trust and good faith.”
Compelled to ascertain the truth for herself, Moku’u dispatched her own people to Rouan. The results of that investigation led her to summon Risai.
“I must begin by making it clear that His Highness is not dead.”
Risai raised her head with a start and stared at the comely yet elderly face. “Really?”
“Yes.” Moku’u next turned her gentle gaze to Kaisei. “Your village was sheltering a military officer. But not His Highness. Kaisei, I take it you were made privy to the man’s name.”
Kaisei nodded. “I didn’t tell anybody in the village. But he told me. He said his azana was Kiryou.”
“Kiryou—” Risai repeated to herself. “So it was Kiryou!”
“Do you know this person?” Moku’u asked.
“He was a colleague. He came to Bun Province as a general in the Provincial Guard.”
Risai brought to mind the scene of that cold grave. She was elated to learn it did not hold Gyousou. But knowing that Kiryou was sleeping there was a bitter pill to swallow. Moreover, he had been alive until last fall. Had they ventured there earlier in the year, they could have seen him.
Another thought suddenly struck her. “Except Kiryou did not have white hair or crimson eyes.”
Standing behind Kaisei, Boukyuu’s head slumped lower to his chest.
Moku’u said, “They deceived you. They wanted you to believe His Highness died in Rouan. Because then a new emperor would ascend to the throne.”
With a look from Moku’u, Boukyuu took a step forward.
In fact, the commander collapsed and was brought to Rouan half a year after Gyousou disappeared. They assumed he’d been badly injured during Asen’s purges, an assumption they never confirmed. What they could say for certain was that his wounds were deep and he showed all the signs of having wandered through the mountain wilderness.
Boukyuu and the others cared for him with the best of intentions in mind. Of course, they opposed Asen as well. If Asen attacked, they would do whatever they could do to help. At the time, they believed he was a soldier in the Imperial Army. No one could remember who first made the suggestion, but somebody mentioned he might be the emperor.
They all knew about the emperor’s disappearance. At the time, the word went around that Asen had attacked him. However, that was at least half a year before. The rumor was that Gyousou had gone into hiding from Asen’s assassins but had been found out and a renewed assault was in the offing. At the time, Boukyuu and the others had no way of knowing what Gyousou looked like.
Though certain this person could not be Gyousou, they continued to hold out hope. They expended every effort taking care of him and went to great lengths to keep his presence secret. When he at last opened his eyes, and they asked if he was Gyousou, “No,” was his reply, though they could not decide whether to take that answer at face value. The details that followed were as they had previously explained to Seishi and Risai.
Kiryou did not once respond when addressed as “His Highness.” He continued to insist that he was not. At some point, Boukyuu came to that conclusion as well. Then the year before, they caught wind of information that Gyousou had white hair and crimson eyes, and agreed among themselves that he could not be Gyousou.
But Kiryou stubbornly refused to reveal his true identity, leading them to believe he must have been a member of Gyousou’s inner circle. As long as they provided him a safe harbor, knowing more would only bring them trouble, so Kiryou stuck to his conviction that the less they knew the better.
Except his condition proved worse than they initially thought. At first, Kiryou planned to leave the village as soon as he recuperated. Except he repeatedly pushed himself too hard and collapsed before he could recover sufficiently. As a result, that fall, he finally succumbed.
“If nothing else, we wish you to understand that we meant him no harm and caused him no harm in any way. Yes, we did mix medicine into his food, but that was only because he insisted he didn’t need it. He was always concerned about being a burden and didn’t want us spending money on expensive medicine and insisted we mustn’t go out of our way for him.”
He was so determined not to cause us trouble, he tried to leave the village before he had fully recovered. They eventually resorted to serving him the medicine in his food.
“That’s what Kaisei became aware of. But he misunderstood. We had no intent to harm him in any way. All we could do was ask him to believe us.”
Risai nodded. “Your colleagues were a great help. We are grateful for all the care and attention demonstrated by the people of Rouan.”
“Thank you,” Boukyuu said, daubing at his eyes with the sleeve of his cloak.
“Pardon me for asking, but why did you go to such lengths? You worked with the shin’nou to get medicines and took on significant responsibilities. You shared the risk of sheltering him. Having doubts about him being the emperor was one thing. When you knew for certain he was not, why did you continue to show Kiryou such considerations?”
“I don’t really know myself. Of course, we couldn’t look the other way. He was in a bad way when we brought him to the village. We were delighted when his condition improved. We really wanted to see him healed and healthy again.” Boukyuu added in a small voice, “Especially in an era so devoid of hope.”
There was no hope left in Tai. The beast on the throne in Kouki did as he pleased with no regard to the consequences. Perhaps protecting Kiryou was their small way of fighting back. Even if it meant getting caught up in forces beyond their control, here was where they would not bend a knee in submission.
“Of course, he was a man of character. He expressed his thanks for our efforts and helped out in any way he could. Our village was able to surmount the tumult of the times in large part thanks to his advice. He rescued Kaisei’s father from a youma. His father later died of his wounds. Left without any close relatives, Kiryou-sama took Kaisei in and supported him as best he could.”
“I always knew Kiryou was a capable officer, but it is good to hear what you just told us.”
Kiryou was in a hurry to get better. The desire to get his old body back made him push himself too far. He put on a brave front in order not to worry Kaisei. But his condition was poor and did not improve. Finally his strength failed him.
“The Taiho—” were his last words.
Kiryou intended to find Gyousou and then they would recapture Kouki together. But that proved a bridge too far. He implored Boukyuu and the others to search for Taiki.
“He never said so in so many words, but given the amount of time that had passed, I think he abandoned the goal of reuniting with His Highness. Even assuming we could track down His Highness, rallying soldiers to his side and raising an army would be next to impossible. And should he turn out to have passed away, the whole effort would be for naught. At the very least, we powerless commoners could continue the search for the Taiho. Well, no, such an effort was equally unlikely to bear fruit. But in his heart, he must have believed that was the one thing we could do to keep hope alive.”
“I see,” Risai said to herself. Reflecting on Kiryou’s state of mind prompted a painful pang of remorse. If only they have met him earlier, even if things turned out the same, at least they could have told him about Taiki’s return.
We were too late. Again.
“His death left the villagers very much dispirited. That was when rumors started circulating about a force searching for His Highness.”
Risai nodded. “Rumors arising from our activities reached our ears as well. I never dreamed of such a thing. A product of our own carelessness. But in any case, there were never enough of us to deserve being called a force. What you see here is our team.”
Boukyuu shook his head in disbelief at the gap between the rumors and reality. Rumors about a force holed up at a safehouse in Rin’u, that they answered to Asen, or that they were Gyousou’s retainers, and always the question of what to do if they were the former.
“Had he lived, we also could have kept our wits about us and settled the matter. We would have done everything in our power to protect him. If the hand of the beast moved against us, we would continue to keep his secrets. If the retainers of His Highness showed up, we would do whatever we could to bring the parties together, even if that attracted the attention of the beast.”
But Kiryou was no longer with them.
“If the force searching for the commander were His Highness’s retainers, at minimum, I hoped to communicate to them his last moments. But we couldn’t tell who belonged to which camp. If we reached out to them and they turned out to be underlings of the beast, that would only bring calamity down upon our heads.” Boukyuu then added in a quieter voice, “I have a duty to protect Rouan.”
Kiryou was no longer with them. Pointing out his grave would do no one any good. So they kept mum. But the situation changed when Shuukou showed up with Seishi in tow. The villagers who checked him out remembered that he belonged to the rumored “force” that was looking for a past member of the military.
“They said he belonged to that group in Rin’u, and that Shuukou’s real apprentice was another person. He’d accompanied Shuukou to the village on several occasions.”
In short, they believed the village had been under surveillance for some time. Except Seishi made no overt efforts to ferret out any rebels. He didn’t confirm Kiryou’s presence there. Which suggested he did not belong to Asen’s camp. Had any of Asen’s minions suspected a thing, they would have charged in and destroyed Rouan and everyone living there. That’s what Asen had always done before.
“So we asked Seika-sama to initiate the contact. The two you met that time were once soldiers in the Bun Provincial Guard. Accused of fomenting rebellion and on the run, they’d found their way to Rouan.”
“They told us that His Highness had white hair and crimson eyes. They met Kiryou-sama and confirmed that he was not His Highness. They’d been searching for him as well.”
The way they interacted with Seishi told them he wasn’t an Asen ally either. But until that group out of Rin’u convinced themselves, there was a good chance they’d stay in Rouan and keep looking for this military commander and asking questions about his identity. Sooner or later, the kingdom was bound to take notice.
“We pointed you to his grave in hopes of convincing you to call off the search.” Boukyuu again hung his head. “We found ourselves in a bigger bind after he died, though we were not without a strategy. We talked it over with everybody and agreed that if the beast’s underlings showed up, we would say he wasn’t His Highness. But to the retainers of His Highness, we would say he was.”
“I’m not buying it,” Seishi interrupted.
“Seishi,” Risai said with a severe look.
He ignored her and addressed Boukyuu in a caustic tone of voice. “Supposing the person in question was Gyousou-sama, did you imagine we would slink away from Rouan with our tails between our legs and never show our faces there again?” He turned to Risa and said, “Risai-sama, I simply cannot go along with this nonsense.”
Risai let out a long breath. She had to agree with him. To start with, she couldn’t accept their claims at face value either—that the man had died and he wasn’t Gyousou. It’d take at least a third visit before she’d be convinced. Claiming it’d been Gyousou all along wouldn’t have been any more believable, not without confirming the facts with her own two eyes.
At the heart of it all were the rumors about Asen’s enthronement.
The nervous Boukyuu tried hard not to look at him, but Seishi fixed him in his gaze. “There was no chance we would give up and not continue our inquiries about the identity of the military commander you sheltered. If true, we would have set up camp in Rouan, searched the houses, and interviewed the residents. The reason we didn’t was because of the rumors about Asen’s accession. You knew about those rumors as well.”
Boukyuu’s shoulders shivered with apprehension.
“This was never about a search team prowling around. It all began with information about Asen’s accession. A new emperor on the throne. A new dynasty about to dawn. A new emperor meant that Gyousou-sama must have already died. For us, searching for Gyousou-sama all along, you claimed he had died in order to drive the point home. Isn’t that what’s been going on here?”
The way Boukyuu averted his eyes confirmed to Risai the truth of what Seishi had said.
“Gyousou-sama died and is no longer emperor. Openly hostile to Emperor Asen, his retainers are now nothing more than rebels. You want nothing to do with insurrectionists. You don’t even want to be seen in the company of anyone antagonistic to Emperor Asen and thus risk guilt by association. Needless to say, searching for someone no longer emperor is but a fool’s errand. The new dynasty is upon us. Those who cling to the past and reject the new emperor will throw the kingdom into chaos and become a thorn in the side. That’s what it comes down to.”
Seishi all but spit out the words, and still had more to say.
“Since the time you heard of this so-called force searching for the emperor, the only thing on your minds was your own welfare and your own interests. You didn’t want Asen looking at you. You were determined to distance yourselves from anybody who might oppose him. Beginning to end, this was about your own self-preservation.”
Boukyuu raised his head, the anger evident on his face. Before he could respond, Risai broke in and said, “What is wrong with prioritizing self-preservation?”
Seishi flashed her a startled look. “That was all they thought about, to the point of deceiving us.”
Risai nodded. “Let’s stipulate that was indeed the case. I’ll repeat the question. Is there anything wrong with people prioritizing their own self-preservation?”
“I wouldn’t say there’s anything wrong with that, but—”
“Boukyuu is the assistant village manager. There is no village manager, so he alone is responsible for keeping the peace in Rouan. Without a doubt, that must be the first thing always on his mind. It is only natural that the villagers should prioritize their own safety as well.”
Moreover, she added, “The people of Rouan helped and sheltered Kiryou. Knowing the risks, they provided him sanctuary for several years and tried to nurse him back to health. If nothing else, we owe them our thanks.”
Boukyuu looked at Risai, clearly taken aback. She gave him a small bow and said, “As wizards, we enjoy a number of privileges in terms of special rights and financial resources, and with those privileges come commensurate responsibilities. We are not supposed to condone the prioritization of our own interests above all others. However, I believe commoners are correct in putting themselves first, along their families and their neighbors. They do not have the power or the authority, and should not be made to bear the responsibility of acting on behalf of anyone outside that circle.”
“But—” Seishi started to say.
“We came here to save Gyousou-sama because we wish to save Tai. Isn’t that the same as saving the people of Tai? If we then criticize the means by which they try to save themselves, wouldn’t that put at naught the noble cause to which we have devoted ourselves?”
Seishi again tried to interrupt. Risai stilled him with a gesture. “I believe that if Gyousou-sama were here, that is what he would say.”
Seishi looked at Risai, blinked, and said nothing.
“We are Gyousou-sama’s retainers. Even if he is not here, we must not act in a manner contrary to his will.”
Risai concluded with that statement. She wished to save the people of Tai, but she could not respect Asen as the emperor. In short, Risai was first and foremost Gyousou’s servant. If Taiki chose Asen as the new emperor, he did so as a servant of Tai. Beyond a doubt, Heaven sent Taiki to Tai to act for the good of Tai. Despite Asen being his implacable foe, Taiki’s personal feelings did not enter into the equation. Despite the contradictions and complications that stood in his way, the fate of Tai always took precedence.
“It is the same with the people of Tai. The fate of the kingdom is and should be their primary concern. That makes those of us searching for Gyousou-sama nothing but a nuisance.”
The right thing to do was to set aside her resentments and past obsessions and move on. But Risai could not rid herself of her animus toward Asen, or suppress the righteous anger she felt because of all the evil things he had done. If she had the chance to strike him down, that is what she wished in her heart. Even if Tai lost a newly enthroned emperor as a result.
“At the end of the day, I will choose Gyousou-sama over Tai. Because I am first and foremost Gyousou-sama’s retainer.”
Moku’u softly interjected, “Would you kill Asen?”
Risai said with a sad smile, “That is what I want to do but not what I would do. Given the respect Gyousou-sama holds for the office, he would definitely not want me to.”
“That’s right,” Seishi said, letting out a long breath. “That is exactly right.”
Taiki had once rejected Gyousou. On Mount Hou. That was when Gyousou decided to leave Tai. At the time, Seishi was on Mount Hou with Gashin.
Gyousou said with a wry smile, “I feel like I was invited to dinner and got asked to leave after only the appetizer.”
He had completed his first meeting with Taiki on Mount Hou. Soon after that, Taiki said to Gyousou, “Please take care of yourself until the next equinox.”
In other words, Gyousou would not be chosen emperor.
“There is no arguing with the Will of God. For lack of a better word, call it fate. Having accompanied me this far, you must think me a sad sack of a man.”
Seishi was beside himself with righteous indignation, even though such emotions availed them nothing. Everything was up to Heaven. There was no blame that could be laid at Taiki’s feet or anybody else’s. They knew that very well, not only Seishi, but all those who came with Gyousou to Mount Hou, including Ganchou and Gashin and their retainers. And yet they could not contain their vexation with a decision they thought totally wrong.
As he gazed out at then, Gyousou seemed to understand this feeling. “I had always believed there was nothing that resided outside my grasp. I could take possession of whatever I wished if I only strove long enough. Having thus obtained everything I wanted, I came to believe that, one way or another, I could claim the Will of God as well.”
Gyousou added with a smile of self-derision, “I’ve been thinking of leaving Tai.”
He took in their startled countenances with quiet eyes. “You see, I have to wonder what sort of person that kirin will place on the throne. The workings of Heaven are such that I will not pretend to comprehend them. And yet, depending on the person, I wouldn’t rule out sbout snatching it away from him.”
“Nonsense!” exclaimed an aghast Ganchou. “Even contemplating such actions is beyond the pale!”
“Is it?” Gyousou looked at Ganchou, an intrigued expression on his face. “Isn’t it in the nature of human beings to do so? Each one of us will size himself up against the new emperor and none of us wishes to come up short. That is human nature as well. We make such comparisons in the first place to take the measure of our own superiority.”
With a “Hmph,” Ganchou sank into silence.
“The result of which will inevitably confirm that it is the new emperor who doesn’t quite measure up. And if only for a moment, the thought of taking that throne for yourself is bound to cross your mind.”
Not bloody likely, Seishi wanted to say. Gyousou would be the last person to do anything of the sort. But Seishi had also thought it a given that Gyousou would be chosen as the emperor. For all his convictions, he turned out to be wrong.
His judgement had been clouded by favoritism. Based on the way things turned out, that was the only conclusion he was left with. Up until now, when he compared every possible candidate to Gyousou, Gyousou always came out on top. To be sure, Seishi didn’t want to think of himself as beneath the role of emperor either. As Gyousou said, the whole point of such comparisons was to weight the emperor’s greatness in the balance.
He should hardly be surprised to see such shallow convictions ultimately betrayed.
“I think some time apart would be best for both Tai and myself. No matter how low I fall, I do not wish to become a thief. I will leave the rest in your capable hands.”
Seishi stared at Gyousou in amazement, no less dumbfounded than Ganchou and Gashin, who raised a chorus of objections.
Gyousou looked back at them. “A new emperor may not soon be enthroned. Faced with a world of disorder, those capable of propping up the kingdom in the meantime must work together. You should return to Tai and put in the kind of effort that is commensurate with your talents.”
Gashin spoke up at once. “I have no desire to serve anyone other than Gyousou-sama.”
“Out of loyalty? If so, then take these words to heart. I wish to bestow Tai with my outstanding retinue. Whatever the reason I came on the Shouzan, I was not chosen emperor, and I should not have to remind you about the fate that awaits Tai.”
“I entirely agree. We as well will pray for the peace and welfare of Tai from afar.”
“Don’t say such nonsense. Why accompany me to this place to begin with? Because my becoming emperor would constitute some crowning achievement in your careers? In that case, you should take your leave. Being around me has obviously availed you nothing of value.”
“That is not what I mean. Even you should understand. I—”
“If you believed it was for the good of Tai, then do not lose sight of that sense of duty. Already impoverished by the profligacy of the previous emperor, the chaos accompanying the empty throne will leave the people of Tai struggling for each breath. The sooner a new emperor ascends to the throne the better. Otherwise, these trying times will only continue. Even when a new emperor is enthroned, it will take time to put the Imperial Court in order. All the more reason to have worthy and competent retainers on hand who can cast a lifeline to the people. In short, your hands are needed at the wheel.”
“If so, then Gyousou-sama should remain as well and work on behalf of Tai.”
“What I’m saying is, it would not be wise to leave a live coal behind in the straw. Not everything I do is for the good of Tai. My pride is at play here as well. If your loyalty to me means anything, at least allow me to walk away from this humiliation.”
“I would like it said that at least Gyousou blessed Tai with the best of his retainers. To hope for such a reputation would suffice.”
Seishi looked down at his feet.
“Once law and order is again restored, then you may feel free to leave Tai and do as you wish. But should that era arrive and you find that you still cannot bear to live without me, well, at that point I would not object to you tracking me down.”
All Seishi and the rest of them could do is shake their heads and exchange wry smiles.
“That’s the kind of man he was.”
Seishi hung his head. “Risai-sama is correct. Gyousou-sama would not have taken Boukyuu to task. Nevertheless, serving under Asen is one thing I cannot do. As Gyousou-sama once resolved to do, I too shall leave Tai. Because if I remain in the kingdom, my loathing for Asen will surely lead me to try and kill him.”
Listening to Seishi, Moku’u was the only one who nodded. “If you had demonstrated no empathy for the suffering of the people, I would have held my tongue. However—” She said with a soft smile, “I would not lend too much credence to news of Asen’s imminent accession.”
“We are in possession of information that advises against believing such reports, information that suggests there is something decidedly strange about calling Asen the new emperor.”
“Excuse me, but who delivered that information?” Risai asked with a dubious look.
“A man by the name of Genkan. I don’t know anything about him either.”
“You know nothing about him?”
“Nothing at all.”
“We have heard that you are familiar with the inner goings-on in Kouki.”
“We are familiar with the inner goings-on in places other than Kouki as well. Informed about the state of affairs in every region by their branch temples, the Taoist temples everywhere remain well informed. But in my case, there is the additional information that comes to me through the shusei.”
Moku’u smiled. “I was once a shusei, you see.”
Risai and the rest of them looked back at her in surprise. Moku’u explained that she had been sold to a shusei boss, her oyakata, back before she could remember and was raised as a dancer.
“However, I fell ill in Bun Province and was unable to continue on with the troupe. As I said, I was sold to the shusei. But my oyakata was a good man with a good heart and raised me as his own daughter. When it became apparent that I could not accompany them on their journeys, he used his connections to get me admitted at a Sekirin branch temple in Rin’u. I recuperated there for half a year. During that time, I decided to become a priestess. When I told my oyakata, he again made arrangements so I could enter the monastery at Sekirin Temple.”
Even today, her connections to the shusei remained strong.
“The shusei often forward us information about matters of general interest. In this case, the notice arrived directly from the capital. Though I don’t know the source, I can only imagine it came from a well-placed individual in Kouki or perhaps even inside the Imperial Palace.”
Moku’u craned her head to the side, recollecting the series of events. “The first time this person reached out to me, the shusei directed a blue bird to my location, saying they had taken receipt of a blue bird addressed to me. The shusei thought the whole thing curious as well, as they knew nothing about the matters in question. On that occasion, the message delivered was that Zui’un Temple had to stop what they were doing.”
At the time, under the auspices of Zui’un Temple, Taoist and Buddhist temples in Kou Province were raising questions about Asen’s legitimacy. The message warned that Asen would likely respond with severe reprisals, in some cases launching punitive expeditions with no chance to appeal.
“Ever since, blue birds have delivered messages directly to me. The message is always enclosed in a black bamboo tube. That’s why I gave my correspondent the name Genkan. The information provided by Genkan has always stood the test of time, to a remarkably extent. Moreover, these are koshuu birds, a species not easy for anyone to get his hands on.”
Koshuu, Risai repeated to herself.
There were a variety of blue birds, each with different characteristics and uses. Among them, the koshuu was a rare you bird, that could only come from a riboku in the palace or the castle of a province lord. A koshuu could be directed to fly to a specific location or person. In the case of the latter, it must have met that person before. But having met them once, it would remember and thereafter find them no matter where they went.
The birds fell under the jurisdiction of the Minister of Summer. They were primarily used by the emperor and province lords to communicate with military commanders dispatched by the Minister of Summer. They were raised by youjuu wranglers attached to the Ministry of Summer, and although rare, now and then surplus birds did appear on the market. At the same time, no matter how well off, it was not the kind of blue bird the average commoner could afford to buy and own.
“That kind of access to a koshuu must mean your correspondent is a high government official or a commissioned officer.”
Moku’u agreed. “Given that this Genkan said there was something strange about the recent developments involving Asen, these official proclamations should be regarded as equally suspicious.”
“Meaning errors are being perpetuated somewhere at a fundamental level,” Moku’u said. “Or rather, someone is playing a high-level game of deception.”