Hills of Silver Ruins

Part Fifteen

The Seishin in the western quarter of Hakkei Palace was the kirin’s home ground. But there the domain of the Saiho was frozen wasteland. Though Taiki had returned, the desolation had not changed. At least the snow that started falling the night before covered the cold ruins with a pristine blanket of white.

Someone was making a commotion in another corner of the Seishin.

“The Taiho is surely still angry at me!” The exaggerated cry, followed by much weeping and wailing, echoed around the courtyard.

Already sick to the gills with the drama, Kouryou glanced toward the garden. At the far end of the living room, toward the entranceway to the main wing of the manor, he could see someone kneeling there. Standing next to him must be Keitou. The person blubbering on and on was Shison.

Shison had been appointed the Naisai, responsible for the care of the noblemen and women in the palace. The nobleman in this case was Taiki. Asen had removed himself from the Ministry of Heaven’s portfolio from the start. Shison had added everything to do with Taiki’s dress, meals, and his living quarters to his portfolio.

p. 159

In announcing the appointment, the Minister of Heaven explained that Shison had reflected on the error of his ways and wished more than anything to be of use to Taiki. He saw this opportunity as a way to make up for his past record.

Taiki only went along with the charade because he didn’t want to interfere with the prerogatives of the Minister of Heaven. But from that day forward, Shison wholeheartedly dedicated himself to being a monumental pain in the ass. He arrived three times a day to inquire after the Taiho’s well-being. Every visit began and ended with much time wasted showering everyone present with empty praise. At the same time, feigning to put Taiki’s personal living space in order, he brought along wagonloads of furniture and furnishings and other accoutrements.

He wished Taiki to suffer no discomfort in his current accommodations, but having been cautioned against inflicting further financial burdens on the kingdom, he offered up his personal property so as to impose no strain on the imperial budget.

Hand-knotted rugs, elegant bedding, clothing too beautiful to wear, along with paintings, vases, and other luxuries. He was hauling in a set of breathtaking mother-of-pearl screens when Taiki finally put his foot down.

“I have no use for such things. If you have no need of them either, then donate them to the poor.”

Taiki addressed him in unsparing tones. Shison burst into tears and apologized profusely. Then when the crocodile tears had dried, heaped praise upon him.

“No matter the time or the place, the dire straits of the people are always first on your mind. What a magnificent disposition you possess.” The torrent of flowery rhetoric made it impossible to get a word in edgewise. “Shall I then bestow these goods on the displaced persons with a note explaining they come to them courtesy of the Taiho?”

Overhearing this one-sided conversation, Kouryou could not believe his ears. Handing such extravagant items to the refugees would invite much unnecessary chaos.

p. 160

“Shison,” Taiki said in a reproving tone. “You speak blithely of displaced persons, but on what basis would select the recipients? There are so many people in the same plight. Can you imagine the consequences if you singled out one of them to receive that kind of charity?”

With this reprimand hanging over his head, Shison henceforth forbade bringing items of the sort to the manor, though that hardly prevented him from blabbering on well within earshot about how he had merely taken note of the Saiho’s parsimonious accommodations and had gone as far as to sacrificed his own personal belongings to try and bring a semblance of order to his daily life.

Now that he could no longer bring them to the main hall, he instead handed out the pricey baubles to the servants and junior retainers and soldiers on guard duty, claiming they were gifts from Taiki himself. The delighted staff applied themselves all the more diligently to their duties, which almost overnight produced a state of nonstop commotion around Taiki.

Shison was only getting started. He next reassigned a large number of civil servants to the already small manor. The once tranquil estate was soon bursting at the seams with activity. Servants busied about tending to the cleaning, the repairs and maintenance, pretty much around the clock.

Saying they weren’t needed only produced more lamentations. Pointing out they were a bother and a hindrance resulted in a further flood of tears. Taiki finally banned them from the main hall. After that, from morning until night, Shison made it a habit of showing up repeatedly at the portico rooms and beweeping his outcast state. Having had enough of that and banning him from the manor proper, Shison carried on the sackcloth and ashes routine at the front gate.

Simply imagining what antics he might be up to next was enough to drive Kouryou up the wall.

“Is the man daft?” an amazed Yari wondered aloud.

p. 161

“Oh, there is method to his madness. Claiming to always be acting on behalf of the Taiho deflects any criticism from himself. In fact, carrying on the way he does, spreading the wealth around by hook or by crook, makes a lot of people happy. Taking him to task and putting a halt to the charade makes you the heartless bad guy.”

Yari craned her head to the side. “A heartless bad guy? You mean, the kirin?”

Kouryou couldn’t help laughing. “Well, you’ve got a point there. Nobody is going to call the kirin heartless.”

The kirin were creatures of compassion. The people and the civil servants were cognizance of that fact.

Kouryou added with a wry smile, “One way or another, Chou’un is behind all this. There are no depths to which he will not stoop.”

Yari said, “What a crude man. How unfortunate that the Taiho should have to deal with a person like that.”

Kouryou couldn’t agree more. Shison and Chou’un were executing a strategy that was fundamentally flawed. Shison ran around praising Taiki to the heavens and drawing comparisons with everybody under the sun. But did he really expect that rhetoric to inflict humiliation or incur jealousy? There really wasn’t any room to compete here. In terms of social status alone, the kirin towered over everyone but the emperor. Only the gods themselves ranked any higher.

“Definitely an ongoing daily disaster for the Taiho. It must wear him ragged.”

p. 162

Even Kouryou found it fatiguing to be in a manor overrun with servants and civil servants. In the meanwhile, handing down decisions with an unswaying discipline, Taiki delivered orders to Keitou that the provincial Minister of Heaven alone would be given responsibility for his care. The imperial mandarins henceforth had no part to play.

With these reforms in place, things finally settled down, and the peace and quiet from before returned to the manor.

Kouryou was enormously relieved. He could help noticing that, amidst all the tumult, Taiki had remained above the fray, never appearing agitated in the least. That display of inner strength impressed him deeply.

Even in the ordinary day-to-day, there is something about a kirin that sets him apart.

Turning these thoughts over in his mind, his eyes fell on Taiki. Taiki was sitting in a sunny place next to the window going over some papers. He quietly read through the documents, at times pointing to a difficult passage and explaining to Juntatsu next to him that he didn’t know how to read the characters. He grasped the overall gist, and understood if it was read for him, but that didn’t communicate the meaning of the sentence itself.

Taiki was a taika, born and raised in a place apart from the Twelve Kingdoms. He naturally learned a different language growing up. As a wizard, he could understand the words spoken in any language. But that gift did not extend to written languages.

A kirin born and raised in a foreign land. That might be at the root of Taiki’s unique perspective on his status and role.

Interrupting Kouryou’s thoughts, Taiki said out of the blue, “I haven’t seen Shouwa around.”

p. 163

Now that he mentioned it, Kouryou hadn’t seen her either. The day before, she’d made a fuss serving breakfast.

“You could probably use a rest,” Taiki said to her.

She nodded and left. Shouwa hadn’t had much to say of late. She previously made a point of following Taiki around to an annoying degree and tending personally to his every need. Kouryou hadn’t observed her behaving like that recently. Since the period when the manor was crowded with servants, she’d shown up, done the bare minimum, and then slipped away.

“I’ll ask Keitou about her. But it’s possible that Shouwa—”

Based on how she’d appeared recently, she might have succumbed to the illness. If so, they shouldn’t expect to see her in Nightingale Manor after this.

Taiki nodded, a pensive expression on his face. “Kouryou, Yari, please come with me.”

Leaving the papers in Juntatsu’s hands, he urged them into the garden. The garden was cold. Patches of ice covered the shallow lake. Regardless, Taiki proceeded to the arbor. It was the one place in the manor where nobody else could overhear them.

Expect him to make some sort of outrageous proposition.

“I’m thinking of making another visit to the Rokushin.”

Kouryou objected at once. “Taiho, that is out of the question. They haven’t forgotten the last time you were there. There will be many more guards on patrol and no easy way to get into the place.”

p. 164

“Even so, I believe it would be possible to infiltrate the Rokushin. To start with, from where I’m standing, there are many ways through the Inner Palace.”

“Of course,” Kouryou conceded.

The kirin was the emperor’s advisor, a critical part of the imperial government. As province lord, his offices were located in Koutoku Manor. As the Saiho, he conducted his political duties in the Inner and Outer Palaces.

“However, all of those accessways are blocked.”

“Sure, the ones everyone knows about. I think it highly likely that the passageways I only know about are still open. And those aren’t the only ones.”

“There are others?”

Taiki nodded. “I don’t know who built the Imperial Palace, but it’s interesting how the possibility of conflict between the emperor and kirin was incorporated into the construction. The means by which the kirin could access the Imperial Palace were secretly maintained. Anticipating a time when the emperor strayed from the Way, shut the kirin out of the Inner Palace, and ruled by dictate, they made sure those avenues existed.”

As far as Taiki was concerned, those conditions existed right now.

“Asen hasn’t shut me out of the Inner or Outer Palaces, but only because he hasn’t bothered to engage in the political process. During a civil war or civil unrest, you could easily end up with a Privy Council that did not want to deal with the kirin and barred him from the premises. On such occasions, the kirin would need a way to force his way in and make his presence felt.”

p. 165

“That may well be so.”

“I’d like you to look for those secret passageways. If possible, in order to arrange one more meeting with Asen, I need a way into the Rokushin. And not only that—” Taiki hesitated for a moment. “Something has been weighing on my mind.”

“Weighing on your mind?”

“The last time I snuck into the Rokushin, a building at the back was secured to a degree that struck me as strange. Soldiers on guard around the perimeter. None of those marionettes. They must have been posted there by the Minister of Summer.”

Kouryou furrowed his brows. That did sound like something worthy of a closer look.

“In the vicinity of the gate facing the East Palace. I have the feeling there is more there than meets the eye.”

“You don’t imagine His Highness—?”

Taiki craned his head to the side. “If Gyousou-sama is being held there—meaning that is why the Minister of Summer is handling the security—in that case, there should be no reason for Chou’un to be at such loose ends. If the Minister of Summer is in on it, there is no way the Chousai, namely Chou’un, wouldn’t know.”

p. 166

“That stands to reason.”

“If not Gyousou-sama, then they must be guarding someone or something important. I’d like to find out who or what.”

Kouryou was struck by a sudden though. “Seirai-dono, perhaps?”

“A good possibility.”

Seirai had been arrested for concealing the ledgers in the Imperial Treasury. Except Seirai was nowhere to be found in the government run prison. Bun’en had confirmed as much before news about him ceased.

What he was asking them to do was not without risk, Taiki acknowledged when Yari spoke up. “If you’re looking for a way in, I already know of one. A tunnel runs from inner sanctum of the Seishin to the northeast of the Jinjuu Manor compound.”

Taiki looked at Yari, clearly impressed. “Kouryou mentioned you knew the Inner Palace like the back of your hand. You really must have had the run of the place.”

p. 167

Yari grinned. Though still amazed, Kouryou had to point out that, “Jinjuu Manor no longer exists.”

The buildings had been wrecked down to the foundations, leaving behind only piles of brick and rubble.

“I said north and east of the compound. Further east of the adjoining garden. To be precise, east and a bit south of the garden. There’s a building like a shrine. The building itself is vacant but it is still there.”

Taiki gave her an examining look. “Would you happen to have an idea of what is in that heavily guarded area?”

“I couldn’t tell you who they have in there. But I know there’s a part of the gate that leads to an underground entranceway. And I know it’s being guarded. Whatever they’ve got, it’s probably down there. A tunnel from the personal quarters of the Inner Palace extends that far. But there are heavily guarded points along the way. I’ve never been able to get close.”

“Where is the security the strongest?”

“Above ground, around the gate. You’d need a small army to break through there.”

“And underground?”

“I might be able to handle them by myself, but not without raising a big commotion. So last time I was there, I beat a hasty retreat. But with Kouryou with me, they’d be easy pickings.”

p. 168

Kouryou gaped at her. “That’s crazy.”

“What’s crazy about it?”

“Picking a fight with the guards down there would be as good as declaring war on Asen.”

Yari laughed. “Well, we are at war, aren’t we? C’mon, Kouryou. You don’t think Asen and the Taiho are allies, do you?”

“Of course not. But—”

“Just because one side isn’t attacking the other doesn’t mean they aren’t openly hostile to each other. Sure, as far as we know, Asen isn’t plotting to take aggressive actions against the Taiho. But you do admit he is holding the Taiho prisoner, right?”

Kouryou groaned. He couldn’t disagree. Yes, they were living in a gilded cage. It was still a cage.

“The Taiho is under house arrest. Though it is a very big jail, he has no real freedom, and Asen holds the power of life and death over him. If that doesn’t describe a state of war, what does?”

Kouryou nodded, and then abruptly recalled what she’d just said. “Asen holds the power of life and death?”

“Of course,” Yari said, as if there couldn’t be any doubts about the matter. “Asen doesn’t appear to me to have put much stock in being named the new emperor. He probably harbors more than a few doubts. I’m guessing he couldn’t care less about the throne itself.”

p. 169

“He harbors—doubts?”

Yari responded at first with a blank look. “Well, a few were bound to be less than convinced. Naming Asen the new emperor was an effective strategy and definitely a clever one at that. Except you can’t count on Asen being that gullible. I suspect not even Chou’un is completely convinced.”

Taiki eyed her suspiciously. “So—what are we talking about here?”

Yari appeared honestly perplexed by this reaction. “Doesn’t the Taiho want to save the people? So much so, you named that villain as the new emperor. That way you could safely reclaim your role as the Taiho.”

Kouryou stood there dumbfounded as Taiki said to her, “Do I look like someone who would do something like that?”

“It hardly matters whether you do or not. That’s what you did and that’s how things stand. That’s why I’m here. To keep you safe.”

Even Taiki found himself speechless at that point. Yari took the two of them in with a surprised expression of her own.

p. 170

“I haven’t the slightest desire to serve Asen. To be honest—” Yari’s words trailed off. Then she said with a shrug, “Well, nobody cares what I think so I’ll tell you anyway. “I have no interest in allying myself with Asen. Never did. Never will. I haven’t met Gyousou-sama so it’s not like I can vouch for his character or anything. But the person who sent me to serve alongside the Taiho believes Gyousou-sama is the emperor and is convinced the Taiho believes so too. Hence the importance of protecting the Taiho.”

Taiki asked, “Yari, are you one of Kakei’s private soldiers?”

Yari grinned. “Let’s just say I won’t try to persuade you otherwise and leave it at that.”

“And your master before that role fell to Kakei?”

“That I cannot answer.”

Taiki said with a wry smile of his own, “But he says Gyousou-sama is the emperor?”

“Milord says that Asen becoming emperor is simply not possible.”

“And that’s why I need to be protected?”

“Precisely. That’s why I was asked to come here. Frankly, Milord might be reading too much into things, like saying this is all a scheme cooked up by the Taiho. But I do believe sending me here was the right decision.”

“You don’t say,” was Taiki’s response, with a tight smile and a shake of his head.

p. 171

“I do not believe the Taiho is as safe as you might imagine. For the time being, Asen is not openly antagonistic. However, when it comes to the question of whether Asen is convinced your life must be defended in order to protect his own, I would err on the side of caution and assume he’s not. Besides, Chou’un is your enemy. He clearly perceives the Taiho in hostile terms.”

“Yari, you’ve got it exactly right,” Taiki said with a crooked grin. “And that’s why stirring up trouble with Chou’un is not about to change the status quo around here.”

“Understood,” was Kouryou’s blunt response.

previous Copyright by Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved. next