16-3 The man who emerged from the villa caught Boushuku completely by surprise.
That day, Boushuku had been on guard duty at the front gate since early in the morning. He hadn’t observed the man entering the villa, nor had he been notified that the Taiho would be receiving visitors. He could only conclude was that here was someone who was not supposed to be there. It seemed a startling lapse in security at first, except that Keitou was seeing the man off, so he was unlikely to be an actual trespasser.
Boushuku concluded he must be a nobleman of one sort or the other. Standing there in amazement, he was about to raise his voice when Gogetsu let out a startled shout. More than startled, he appeared to Boushuku to be downright petrified.
At least Gogetsu knows who he is.
Boushuku was on the verge of forming this thought into a question when Gogetsu fell to his knees like he’d been punched in the back of his head.
“His Highness,” Boushuku heard him whisper. Boushuku froze for a moment in shock and then hastily mimicked Gogetsu and knelt there on the ground.
That is Asen? he wondered. Not once when he was posted at the Inner Palace had he seen the emperor with his own eyes. His muscles tensed up so much his body trembled from the strain. But at the same time he couldn’t stop another question from stealing into his thoughts.
When and how did he get into Nightingale Villa?
Boushuku felt like he had beheld some sort of miracle. He literally shook in his boots. Right there in front of him, Keitou humbly bade the emperor goodbye and he left the compound.
Gogetsu frantically called for a security detail. Director Fukushou ran up. Starting with Gogetsu, the director summoned the reserve junior retainers and organized an honor guard there on the spot. They formed a column and escorted Asen from the premises.
The emperor simply passed by Boushuku as he knelt there. He said nothing, did not meet his gaze. A chance meeting with no lasting meaning. Except Boushuku was deeply impressed, delighted to have finally seen the emperor in person, and all the happier that Asen had met with Taiki. He had heard that Asen paid Taiki no heed, but was convinced now that couldn’t be true.
Whether he was taking care of some task or simply paying Taiki a visit, that he had left the Rokushin for the express purpose of meeting with the Saiho came as a great relief.
“How wonderful,” he murmured aloud, though the emotions reflected on the face of Director Fukushou were considerably more complex.
Gogetsu walked alongside the emperor in a state of no little confusion.
Gogetsu hadn’t seen his old commander in quite some time. Once Asen might have called out to him in a cheerful voice and he would have responded the same way. But in the intervening years, the distance between the lord and his retainer had grown to an unfathomable degree. And then there was the stony hard look on his face.
As far as Gogetsu knew, this was not a man whose temperaments changed like the weather. The expression he wore was no window into his soul. Nonetheless, Gogetsu could tell that Asen was agitated and was carrying a great weight on his mind.
What happened in there?
His own thoughts brimmed with questions that he dared not give voice to. He gave Asen, his head bowed in thought, a sidelong glance.
Asen raised his head and looked back at Gogetsu, a spark of recognition in his eyes. “Gogetsu?” he said, as if realizing for the first time he was there. “So you were a member of the Taiho’s detail. I wasn’t aware.”
Here was the old commander Gogetsu once knew. Though immensely pleased, the moment was equally painful.
I served at your side not long ago.
They had not been allowed to approach him, but he had been on Asen’s personal security detail. Gogetsu answered with a silent nod.
“Gogetsu,” Asen said with a bob of his head, a gesture familiar to all his retainers. As he had once before, Gogetsu walked alongside Asen, matching his long strides.
“It’s been a while. How are you doing?”
“Well enough,” Gogetsu answered. He wasn’t sure whether the cheerful sort of response that had once been normal was still appropriate.
Asen looked at him with an air of expectation, as if waiting for the corresponding question that naturally came next in this kind of conversation. Gogetsu added, “More importantly, it’s good to see Your Highness in such fine spirits.”
“Your Highness,” Asen muttered to himself. “So you consider me the emperor?”
“Of course!” Gogetsu answered at once, with an intensity that surprised even himself. “I have always considered Asen-sama the rightful emperor. That has never changed.”
Asen ranked above Emperor Kou and Gyousou. That conviction alone had never wavered.
“You don’t say,” Asen said, an enigmatic expression on his face.
Gogetsu was familiar with that look. Fukushou reacted the same way whenever Boushuku exulted in his guileless way about Asen’s accession. Without realizing it, Gogetsu suspected that he did too.
The thought occurred to him that perhaps Asen felt guilty about striking down Gyousou. Maybe he regretted what he did and blamed himself for the aftermath. That was why he retreated to the depths of the Imperial Palace and refused any contact with the outside world.
“It’s good to hear that the matter of your enthronement has finally been settled.”
“You don’t say,” Asen said again. The expression on his face didn’t change.
Escorted by the security detail from Nightingale Villa, Asen returned to the Inner Palace, where only the hollow-eyed mannequins waited to greet him. Turning away from their expressionless faces, he saw Gogetsu politely bowing to him.
I have always considered Asen-sama the rightful emperor.
Gogetsu’s words weighed on his mind. Up until now, his retainers must have harbored no end of complicated thoughts and theories. He could not help but pity them, what with all the grief he had put them through. Their faces rising up in his mind, he entered the Rokushin, only to discover he had a most unwelcome guest.
Rousan flashed an ironic smile as soon as he walked in. “Quite the ruckus your raised there.”
Asen stopped. “What are you talking about?”
“Like, forcing the Taiho to swear his fealty?” This time her accompanying smile was tinged more by scorn.
“A covenant means nothing based on words alone.”
“You are right on that.”
Rousan threw herself onto the ottoman like she owned the place. Her insolence was a part of her nature and she made no attempt to hide whatever contempt she felt for Asen. Which was why he couldn’t help liking her so much more than Chou’un and all the mannequins. Yet another character trait he loathed about himself.
“Except the Divine Will still rests with Gyousou. Heaven choosing you as the new emperor still depends on Gyousou-sama abdicating first. It simply shouldn’t be possible for the kirin to promise you anything.”
“Yes, but Taiki made the vow.”
“That kirin is a monster. There is nothing normal about him. Be that as it may, your demand was utterly unreasonable. You knew it was and did it anyway, didn’t you? There you go, upsetting another apple cart.”
“Like I said, what are you talking about?”
“Seirai.” That cynical smile returned. “Seirai will never yield to you. Kouryou snuck in and got close enough to make contact with the prisoner.” Rousan smirked. “You may have stolen the throne but Seirai will never accept it. He’ll never recognize you as emperor. That’s why he made off with the ledgers and squirreled them away somewhere. You can call yourself the emperor of this kingdom all you want, but you still don’t have the ledgers and you couldn’t convince Seirai to tell you where they are. All you could do was imprison and torture him. Seirai wouldn’t bend then and he won’t now. Far from it, the only reason you keep torturing him is for the sake of torturing him. Because he is the personification of your everlasting shame.”
Asen shot Rousan a piercing glare.
“Hoh. You could kill a person with a look like that. A little too close for comfort, eh?” Rousan laughed. “And then, of all things, you put that shame on display for Gyousou’s retainers and made sure the Taiho knew all about it too. You’ve gone rogue. Or maybe you’re just jealous. Besides those mannequins, the only people answering to you are petty officials like Chou’un and his ilk. None of them would go to the same lengths on your behalf. You’re jealous of Gyousou-sama and took it out on the Taiho.”
Asen ground his teeth and turned away. “He pledged his fealty. How else am I supposed to interpret that?”
“The Taiho possesses the will of a monster when it comes to making the impossible possible. But this is one case where all the will in the world won’t make a difference. What is possible is only possible if Heaven says so.” She concluded with disinterested shrug of her shoulders.
“You seem dissatisfied.”
“Of course I’m dissatisfied. You are a thief. The emperor of this kingdom is Gyousou-sama. Heaven should have no doubts about that. And yet—” She paused and then spit out, “It’s so bloody exasperating!”
Asen was completely taken aback. Rousan was Gyousou’s retainer. She despised Asen and recognized neither his position nor his authority. Nevertheless, Rousan was perfectly happy to collaborate in his usurpation. Whatever reservations Asen may have harbored, Rousan always showed up to fan the flames.
I have no idea what she is thinking.
Though perhaps Rousan found herself in the same boat.
Once before, on that fateful day as well, she’d said the same thing, that he was jealous of Gyousou. He denied it, of course, but Rousan didn’t put any stock in that answer either. She only smiled as if to say she already knew his real motivations.
Asen himself had to wonder where the truth lay.
Someone in the palace reached out to Seirai. He was in his rights to get worked up about hearing it was Taiki’s Daiboku. So he went rogue, as Rousan put it, and forced a pledge of fealty out of Taiki. Rousan’s version of events wasn’t all wrong. Except he had no awareness of any sort of jealousy. He was simply irate. If the Daiboku was behind this, then he would have only done so at the direction of Taiki.
Just as Rousan said, Seirai was nothing but a blot on his name and reputation. Furious that Taiki, of all people, should have brought that to light, he wished to crush them all underfoot.
Jealousy had nothing to do with it. He had retainers who worked as hard and smart as the Daiboku, retainers as loyal and devoted as Taiki. The man he’d just met, for example. He had every reason to believe that Gogetsu was as capable as the Daiboku. Asen had no reason to envy Gyousou.
Mulling over these thoughts, Asen stood on the balcony and turned his gaze toward the sea. The Sea of Clouds was muddy gray, meaning the world below was clouded over.
That fateful day when Rousan said to his face that he would never become Gyousou’s equal no matter how much he struggled. What Asen felt at that moment was definitely not jealousy.
If he had to place a name on the feeling, it would be darkness.
The despair of forever being labeled the imitator, the hollowed out feeling of never being able to rise beyond his station in life. He was suffocating, gasping for air, and yet there was no escape, nowhere he could run.
So Asen rose up in revolt.
He separated Gyousou and Taiki. He convinced Taiki to send his shirei to aide Gyousou. With Taiki left defenseless, Asen would sever his horn, seal his powers, and imprison him. He’d lock Gyousou away as well. Thus the throne would fall into Asen’s hands.
Rousan happily offered him advice. She even made youma available to him in large numbers. Asen didn’t know how Rousan manipulated youma that, by rights, only the kirin should be able to control, and Rousan wasn’t offering any explanations. She somehow pulled it off with amulets and talismans, taught Asen the techniques, and lent him many youma.
The one possibility they hadn’t accounted for was Taiki triggering a meishoku and escaping to Hourai. Rousan pointed out that these results left him as good as imprisoned, and with his horn severed, he could not return.
The throne belonged to Asen. Except his accession was decidedly strange. The civil service and the people asked him to serve as provisional emperor and looked to him as such. But only at first. Little by little, the doubts started growing. Of course, Asen was cognizant of this as well. The original plan was to have Taiki behind him with a sealed horn. Taiki wasn’t there, and so Asen lost that symbol of Heaven’s authority to back up his claim.
His only recourse was to stamp out those suspicions. In the process of sweeping away Gyousou’s retainers, reducing the hostile forces arrayed against him to rubble, and setting up a government that answered only to him, Asen’s status as a usurper became clear to any objective observer. At the same time, one more thing became perfectly clear.
Even after Gyousou disappeared from the scene, Asen remained nothing more than an imitation of the real thing. Whatever Asen did, someone was bound to say that Gyousou would have done it faster and better. No matter how slight the stumble, they said Gyousou never would have made such a mistake.
Asen’s accumulated irritation upset his efforts to purge Gyousou’s allies with any kind of finesse. Asen instead became obsessed with eradicating Gyousou. As long as any vestige of Gyousou remained, the comparisons would continue. Gyousou’s retainers and allies were bound to weigh him and Gyousou on the same scale and find him wanting.
The thought terrified him, terrified him so much he careened from one extreme to the other. As a result, the youma he unleashed summoned more of their kind until the youma had a free rein and the kingdom began to collapse. The civil service and the people alike longed for Gyousou.
Compared to Asen, this short-lived emperor now took on the qualities of an infallible saint in their memories.
Asen had wrung his own neck, much the same as when Gyousou resigned his commission and descended to the world below. In his absence, he grew all the more perfect, his presence all the stronger when he was no longer there. Having been deposed after such a brief reign, he could now do no wrong. None of the expectations that attended the accession of an emperor could be betrayed, and that collective beatification bestowed on him a status that would persist forever.
Asen should have seen it coming. That lack of foresight was his own mistake.
Asen stole the throne, only to end up a pale shadow of the brilliant emperor who lived on in the memories of his subjects. No matter how he struggled, he could never surpass Gyousou. Could such despair even be called jealousy?
“If Gyousou were here, he’d have himself a good laugh,” Asen muttered to himself.
“A good laugh? And why is that?”
“The world is paying a man no mind, and yet this man willfully chooses to wrap himself in enmity, picks a fight with the world, and subsequently ruins himself. I’ve seen so many go down that path. And to be honest, it always made me chuckle.”
Rousan craned her head to one side. “The world was paying you no mind? You mean Gyousou-sama? Whoever told you that?”
Wondering what she was getting at, Asen glanced over his shoulder at Rousan.
“Of course, Gyousou-sama was entirely aware of you. You were the competition and he wasn’t about to fall behind. Isn’t that how you pictured the relationship between the two of you?”
“That was hardly the case. After all, Gyousou quit the contest and descended to the world below.”
“Because he was still in the fight,” Rousan said in amazement. “Gyousou-sama wasn’t one to confuse the ends and the means.”
Meaning what? Asen didn’t have time to ask before Rousan continued.
“How are you and Gyousou-sama different? The problem was who would shine brighter in the eyes of Emperor Kyou. You didn’t want to come in second behind Gyousou-sama. For you, it was all about winning the favor of Emperor Kyou, wasn’t it? Thus you chose to follow his unreasonable orders. As a result, you won the big promotion, not Gyousou-sama.”
“Because adhering to the Way took precedence for him.”
Rousan held up a finger. “No. In the end, Gyousou-sama was always competing about who was the better man. So you should have clarified what social status or acclaim or the favor of Emperor Kyou meant in that context. You took an appointment by the emperor to mean you were the better man. In the process, you lost track of what you were fighting over. No matter what, you sought the approval of Emperor Kyou. You wanted more promotions and the status that came with them. But Gyousou-sama never forgot what the competition was really about.”
Asen stared at her in blank amazement.
“And so you ended up a thief. I should hardly be surprised that you twisted yourself into knots pursuing something so utterly lacking in substance.”