18-3 The civil servant visited Yuushou on a cold and wintry day. The man gave him a courteous bow and stated without the slightest emotional affect that His Highness had summoned him.
The shocked Yuushou got dressed and hurried to the Inner Palace. There he was met by another servant with an equally blank face and led inside.
A man dressed in black was sitting on the throne. This was the first time in almost three years that Yuushou had laid eyes on him.
“Yuushou, I’m sending you to meet with Gyousou.”
Kowtowing there before the throne, Yuushou raised his head. He’d heard that Taiki had insisted Gyousou must formally abdicate. So Asen was finally getting around to having him do so. Surely that meant he’d also determined to go forward with the enthronement.
“I would be honored to do so.”
Asen nodded. “However, there is no need to mobilize an entire division. You will lead a regiment to Bun Province.”
“Kan’you Mountain, to be specific.”
From the expression on Yuushou’s face, Asen must have guessed the question on his mind. “Gyousou is currently deep under Kan’you Mountain. Buried beneath a landslide.”
Getting buried beneath a landslide was pretty much synonymous with getting killed. Was he being sent there to dig up the corpse?
Asen gestured for the puzzled Yuushou to approach him. “Gyousou fell to the depths of Kan’you Mountain.”
“Down a mine shaft, you mean?”
“Exactly. The landside sealed off the access tunnels.”
That explanation didn’t leave Yuushou any more enlightened than before. He couldn’t imagine how human beings could cause a landslide on such a scale. If there was a way to collapse a wall of rock at a moment’s notice, the military would want to know about it first. Such methods would be invaluable to a military that, far more than fighting, was involved in civil engineering projects on a regular basis.
Asen said, answering Yuushou’s apparent confusion, “These are secret means previously known only to myself.” He flashed a derisive smile. “What I’m telling you is for your ears only and should be revealed to no one else. You will be leading a single regiment to Kan’you Mountain, but I will be choosing who will accompany you. Your guide will be Ukou.”
Yuushou immediately voiced an objection. “A guide will not be necessary.”
“You can’t take Kan’you Mountain for granted,” Asen countered flatly. “That place is a natural labyrinth.” His severe expression softened. “Well, the miners dug all those tunnels, so I don’t suppose you could call them natural. Nevertheless, once you get below the surface, Kan’you Mountain is riddled with catacombs. Without Ukou, you’d end up running around in circles.”
Yuushou asked, “This Ukou, is he the one who sealed Gyousou within Kan’you Mountain?”
Asen’s nod aroused in Yuushou a vague sense of disappointment. Only Asen knew how to trigger such a landslide. The one person he’d shared that secret with, the person who’d actually carried it out, was Ukou. Not himself.
“The fact of the matter is, in order to extract Gyousou you will first have to excavate the tunnels. When the landslide sealed off the tunnels, many other rickety mines and tunnels throughout the mountain caved in as well. That will make the job all the harder and rounding up the necessary manpower will take time. The Bun Provincial Guard and the land gangs will be at your disposal. Go inspect the conditions of the tunnels and take command of the preparations for the excavations.”
“Yes,” said Yuushou.
Asen rose from the throne and drew closer to him. “Have the land gangs recruit the miners and handle the critical parts of the excavation. Ukou knows where those critical parts are. He’ll also know what to do once the job is done.”
Yuushou drew a sharp breath. That meant killing the miners involved in the excavation. He took a long look at the face of his liege, that he hadn’t seen in three years. He never would have expected him to hand down such an order. No, to tell the truth, Yuushou had already known for some time. When Asen launched the extermination campaign against the rebels, he gave no thought to the civilians caught up in the conflict.
“What?” Asen said, narrowing his eyes. “I’m not asking you to get involved. Leave it all to Ukou. No need for you to get your hands dirty.”
Was this Asen trying to be nice? Yuushou felt a faint quiver of apprehension when he asked, “Aren’t the miners and members of the land gangs also innocent civilians?”
“Well, then don’t involve any innocent civilians. Have the land gangs round up their friends and associates.”
But it’s fine if they’re related to the land gangs?
Yuushou did not dare voice that question aloud. During the troubles with the land gangs, they were ostensibly the enemy. The Imperial Army took the fight to the land gangs and anybody involved with them.
But— Yuushou couldn’t help thinking as he left the Inner Palace.
Warring with the land gangs who had risen up in naked opposition was one thing. Soliciting their cooperation and then slaughtering them afterwards was quite another. Using the land gangs to unseal the tunnels and then betraying them and killing them—that was plan of the man he had long served.
Asen had changed between then and now. Or perhaps he’d been that way all along.
In any case, what was this secret weapon, the details of which could not be revealed to anyone? How in the world could a man-made landslide be triggered on such a scale?
So Yuushou had to ready his troops for the departure to Rin’u, select his staff officers, and organize the regiment. The march to Rin’u would take a fortnight. After that, he could only guess at the time required to begin the search of Kan’you Mountain and open up an access road to where Gyousou was located. Having no idea of the scale of the landslide, he couldn’t begin to grasp the steps he’d have to take at this stage.
During that time, that he’d have to bring Ukou with him weighed all the heavier on his mind.
Just how close were Asen and Ukou? When did Ukou become a part of his inner circle? What circumstances brought them together?
These questions on his mind as he returned to the barracks, he ran into the last person he had any desire to see. He knew Yuushou had been summoned by Asen and wanted to know what his orders were. He’d been waiting to get the news from the horse’s mouth.
The man wearing red and black armor leaned back against the gate post. As soon as he spotted Yuushou, he grinned and said, “Rin’u, eh?”
“Yeah,” was all of Yuushou’s reply.
“Works for me,” Ukou said with a gloating look. “Happy as always to show you the way.”
Yuushou walked on without another word. Why Ukou? he muttered to himself. Asen turned to Ukou as well in the previous attempt on Gyousou’s life. When committing himself to as grave a matter as high treason, why did Asen pass over the lifelong retainers that had risen up the ranks with him and instead engage with people like Ukou?
Because if ordered to assassinate Gyousou, Yuushou was bound to harbor second thoughts.
Yuushou had no qualms about Gyousou being chosen as the new emperor. They belonged to the same military brotherhood. Yuushou respected him as an army general. Though he didn’t know Gyousou personally, he had no particular reason to dislike him. Of course, in terms of raw talent, he ranked Gyousou behind Asen. Asen was in every category the first among equals. Still, he had nothing bad to say about Gyousou.
So blithely consigning Gyousou to oblivion left a bad taste in his mouth. Were he ordered to, he had no inclination to refuse, though if he accepted such a mission, he doubted he would come away with any sense of accomplishment for having done so.
Gyousou was the emperor. He carried the Kingdom of Tai and everyone who lived there on his shoulders. More than killing the man, killing the long-awaited emperor struck a particularly bitter chord.
Moreover, grand treason was a grave sin and the greatest crime in the law, an offense against the kingdom and the people. If it was within his power to do so, Yuushou would dissuade Asen from continuing down this road. He naturally felt a strong resistance to participating in these events. Yet at the same time, he wanted to be involved.
Yuushou was a bundle of contradictions. He hoped to persuade Asen otherwise. You’re the only one I can trust. Perhaps those were the words he wanted to hear.
But Asen turned to Ukou instead. Yuushou loathed Ukou from the start. The previous dynasty saw the death of a particularly pompous and ineffectual general. Ukou was one of the soldiers furloughed in the aftermath. Requests and favors from above overrode any objections and he was assigned to Asen’s division under Hinken’s command.
His colleagues didn’t think much of him. He was said to be fearless. But lacking the skills, he reduced every fight to an indiscriminate brawl. He was not only upfront about his low and mean character, but shamelessly boasted about it to a discomfiting degree. Yuushou had seen nothing in him since to change his opinion.
There was a time when Asen would have gone out of his way to avoid associating with such a man. Yet it was Ukou to whom Asen assigned such critical tasks. Ukou grew even more full of himself as a result. Hinken had him transferred to Shinryou’s division, but Shinryou hailed from Gai Province and Ukou didn’t hide his disdain for the fact that Shinryou and the rest of them were his superior officers in name only.
Turning his back on the smirking Ukou, Yuushou headed for his office. When he got there, he unexpectedly found Shukuyou, the Minister of Summer, waiting for him.
“Quite out of the blue, orders came down to dispatch Yuushou to Bun Province. From His Highness, I assume.”
Yuushou nodded. Now Shukuyou bore the weighty title of Minister of Summer. He’d previously been a staff officer overseeing a coterie of mid-ranked officers. He was also Keitou’s superior. Shukuyou and Yuushou went way back together.
“I heard you’re to meet with Gyousou in order to secure his abdication.”
“So it seems. Although I won’t be taking point on this one. Ukou is coming with me.”
“Ukou. Huh.” Shukuyou drew his brows. “Why has His Highness entrusted that villain with such important assignments?”
“Precisely because he is a villain.”
“I cannot condone any of this,” Shukuyou spit out. He could not abide a man like Ukou even breathing the same air as His Highness.
Asen’s soldiers prided themselves in their irreproachable conduct and physical fortitude. Yuushou and his fellow officers felt fully justified in boasting of those qualities. They always received superior reviews compared to Gyousou’s army in this regard.
A big reason for this was the insubordination Gyousou engaged in now and again, the kind of disrespect for authority that Asen’s forces had never once demonstrated. They understood the position they occupied as an army and believed they deserved the reputation they’d earned for never overstepping those bounds.
All the more reason they simply could not condone the presence of boorish and unprofessional mercenaries like Ukou in their ranks.
Shukuyou had never been anything more than a staff officer, but as a member of the military, he took part in campaigns, and that included being stationed on the front lines. Although he never picked up a sword and charged into battle, he thought of himself as a soldier and recoiled as well from this stain on their honor and reputation.
When he explained as much, Yuushou answered with a wry smile, “The honor and reputation of a usurper?”
Shukuyou stiffened. “Nothing of the sort. Asen-sama will ascend to the throne as the emperor chosen by Heaven.”
“Well, then. Let me rephrase that. Someone in authority who hears of rebels rising up here or there and slaughters them together with all the unfortunate civilians who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Yuushou!” Shukuyou responded at once from the gut. He couldn’t dismiss Yuushou’s point out of hand.
“I guess I struck a nerve,” Yuushou said with a smile. “Well, it’s not a burden you’ll have to bear. The likes of Asen-sama and Chou’un make the decisions. We’re the one who actually get their hands dirty.”
That was the cold, hard reality that left him shaken. However heartless the orders Shukuyou handed down were, at the end of the day, they were carried out by Yuushou and his men.
“Oh, I’m not donning a hairshirt and placing the blame on you. That’s what it means to be a soldier. You don’t question orders. You do your duty and wash the blood off your hands later. We don’t have the right to cast aspersions at Ukou. From the perspective of the civilians, they could hardly tell the difference between us.”