Hills of Silver Ruins

Part Sixteen

Keitou arrived at the villa a little past noon. He was in a hurry and his face was filled with concern.

Later than I imagined, Yari mused to herself. She expected him to rush to the villa first thing in the morning. The civil service must have been thrown into confusion by the events of the night before. In any case, Keitou showed up at last and headed to the main hall, accompanied by a slender man a step behind him.

“I apologize for causing such a commotion, but there are inquiries the Minister of Summer wishes to make of the Taiho.”

“What is going on here?” Taiki asked in a preternaturally calm voice. Though his complexion was a tad on the gray side, he deported himself with his usual vim and vigor.

The thin man scooted forward on his knees. “I beg the Taiho’s pardon. I am Shukuyou, the Minister of Summer. As a matter of fact, last night, insurgents broke into the Inner Palace.”

Taiki tipped his head to the side in apparent confusion. “Insurgents?”

p. 213

“We are tracking down their whereabouts as we speak. I know this is terribly presumptuous of us, but we humbly ask that you allow us an audience with the Daiboku.”

Taiki made a point of pondering the request. “I do not see what the Daiboku has to do with these insurgents you speak of.”

“We only wish for him to hear us out. If you would, please.”

To which Taiki responded, his demeanor all the more cool and composed, “Again, I fail to see any connection between my Daiboku and these so-called insurgents that you say entered the Inner Palace. What in the world happened there?”

Flustered by the demand for information, Shukuyou stumbled for a reply. “In fact, last night, a person or persons unknown trespassed into the Inner Palace. Several guards were killed before they retreated, covering their tracks.”

“Did any harm come to Asen?”

“None whatsoever. As far as we can tell, their target was not His Highness.”

“You don’t say.” Taiki sighed. “Then what was their objective?”

This question was also followed by a long silence. The bewildered Shukuyou finally put his thoughts together and explained, “They attempted to abduct a criminal being held in the Inner Palace.”

p. 214

“What criminal would this be?”

“I apologize, but I am not at liberty to divulge that information.”

Taiki drew his mouth into a tight line. “Is this person actually a criminal?”

Shukuyou raised his head in surprise. “I am not sure what you mean by that question.”

“It has come to my attention that many persons deemed inconvenient to the kingdom have been falsely accused of crimes and locked up. That is currently the fate of my Chief Cabinet Secretary. I have repeatedly requested that he be freed, or at the very least that I be allowed to see him, and have received no satisfactory response at all.”

Even standing some distance away, Yari could tell that Shukuyou had been caught off guard. He never expected Taiki himself to bring up the subject. Assuming that Taiki had nothing to do with Seirai’s attempted jailbreak, his not broaching the matter would have felt more unnatural.

My, my, but he is a shrewd one, Yari chuckled to herself.

“Nobody has been falsely accused of anything!” Shukuyou with great indignation. “All criminals taken into custody are done so on the basis of indisputable evidence. We would never allow a law-abiding subject of the kingdom to be arrested without incontrovertible proof of wrongdoing.”

“Really? People routinely disappear from the Imperial Court for no reason whatsoever. Members of my own staff such as Heichuu and Tokuyuu and Shouwa. The kirin doctor and my Daiboku as well.”

p. 215

“The Daiboku?”

“We have seen neither hide nor hair of Kouryou since this morning, even after a thorough search of the premises. Come to think about it, Kouryou had recently begun behaving in strange manner, much the same as Heichuu and Tokuyuu did before they disappeared. Some sort of change came over them and we were subsequently informed they had been sent to work in the Inner Palace. Our requests to see them were denied. We are not allowed to see them, and they have not been permitted to visit us. I am forced to conclude that they have been detained against their will.”

“Such a thing—” Shukuyou started to say, but Taiki wasn’t finished.

“Petitions to meet with past retainers and old acquaintances such as Rousan and Ganchou have also been rejected. Is that because they as well are being held prisoner? Or are you saying I lack the authority and the agency to see them?”

Shukuyou couldn’t come up with an answer.

“I was separated from the kingdom for a long period of time. I am also a taika. I accept it as inevitable that I will not be taken seriously. However, I cannot condone these unreasonable incarcerations. And if they are not being detained, if something untoward has been inflicted upon their persons, Heaven will not turn a blind eye to the actions that left them in a such a state.”

“But, of course—”

With a flurry of prevarications, Shukuyou exited the villa rather like a man fleeing for his life.

p. 216

Knowing Kouryou wasn’t there should be all the information he needed for now. He would undoubtedly visit Chou’un forthwith and report to him as much. Chou’un had surely already concluded that Kouryou was the intruder from the night before. But no matter how much he might want to state his personal conviction that Taiki handed down the orders, the subject would simply not be up for discussion.

If Chou’un brought up the matter, Taiki would demand to know why he couldn’t meet with Heichuu and Tokuyuu and Seirai and Ganchou. Should the Taiho call for an investigation, the Chousai had no actual standing to deny the request. That left him with the option of going public with his disregard for the rank and position of the Saiho. Or he could keep a lid on these untoward incidents and abandon any further pursuit of the matter.

Given the choice, Chou’un inevitably chose the latter course. This Imperial Court was riven with rival factions, all of them eager to bare their fangs if they sensed a gap in his armor.

Left standing there with a puzzled look on his face was Keitou. “Taiho, about Kouryou disappearing—”

Taiki nodded. “We haven’t seen him since this morning. He didn’t show up at the usual time to change shifts with Yari. We checked his room but he wasn’t there. He doesn’t appear to have returned to his room since last night.” Taiki let out a sad sigh. “He had been behaving strangely of late. I’m sure you noticed as well, Keitou.”

“Yes, well, to tell the truth, I thought he had been looking more tired than usual.”

It had occurred to Keitou that Kouryou had been afflicted by the illness, though he did seem to be improving.

p. 217

“That was the conclusion I came to as well. Kouryou has been at my side all along. I thought it only natural that he should be getting worn out. On the other hand, Heichuu and Tokuyuu exhibited the same symptoms too. I can’t help but worry that the same thing happened to him.”

“Indeed,” Keitou agreed.

“An additional concern is who is behind his disappearance. I wouldn’t object if Kouryou and the others were simply being held somewhere for their own good. But if their lives and well-being are being placed in jeopardy, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Heaven would withdraw the Divine Will it has bestowed. If these acts are being done on Asen-sama’s orders, then he should be stopped. If other individuals are responsible, then the criminals putting the kingdom in such distress must be hunted down and removed.”

“I will discuss the matter with Chou’un-dono.”

“If you would, please,” Taiki answered with a nod.

At that moment, Yari’s countenance abruptly changed. Startled at the taut expression that rose to her face, Keitou followed her gaze. Glancing over his shoulder in the direction of the back garden, he froze in astonishment.

Through the glass doors facing the garden appeared the figure of a man. Taiki bounded to his feet as if bodily thrown from the chair.

Asen was standing there.

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