18-4 Keitou arrived at the manor in the midst of a snow storm, adorned from head to toe in white. He entered the main hall and stated, “I humbly wish to take my leave of the Taiho’s service.”
“Keitou?” Taiki responded with a startled expression. “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean what I said. I shall be retiring from Hakkei Palace.”
“Then please explain why you are doing so.”
“I regret that is something I cannot do.”
Taiki craned his head to the side in confusion. “If you wish to leave my service, I will not force you to remain. But you play a necessary and important role here. What reasons do you have for resigning? Is it because of me? If so, I’m sure any such differences could be resolved.”
“Not at all! This decision has nothing to do with anything the Taiho has said or done.”
“So the matter is already out of my hands? Are you sure there is no way for me to change your mind?”
Keitou remained silent for a long moment. To be sure, Taiki was happy enough that, as his retainer, Keitou had chosen to explain as much as he had. All the more so considering that Keitou had once been his enemy.
“Unfortunately, given the nature of the situation, I do not believe that even Taiho could offer a satisfactory resolution.”
Taiki studied Keitou with a puzzled look until Keitou bowed his head. “I cannot agree that His Highness—that Asen—should ascend to the throne.”
Taiki pointed out that any decision to seat Asen on the throne was the choice of Heaven, not Taiki himself. But he made no headway with that argument.
“I understand the intentions of Heaven. I simply cannot accept them.”
“Are you not one of Asen’s retainers?”
“I was,” Keitou said, using the past tense of the verb. “It is true that he was the man who chose me and whom I called my commander. For a long time, I venerated Asen-san and served him with pride.”
A retainer is a strange creature, Keitou couldn’t help thinking. Their relationship was not that of a parent and child, nor of older and younger siblings. At first, the retainer was little more than a stranger who answered to his orders and joined his camp. They met as subordinate and superior, then as leader and follower, and then at some point, he became the person he served without condition.
Looking back, Keitou could not recall when or on what occasion the transition took place. At first, there were surely times when it was little more than a contrarian impulse. And, in fact, he’d heard that Eishou of Gyousou’s army was dead set against it.
Somewhere along the line, Keitou decided that Asen was his lord and master, and was delighted to be counted among his retainers. Though others contrasted and compared Asen with Gyousou, Keitou never once felt that Asen was inferior to Gyousou in any way. Asen was always the greater of the two. Of course, he also believed that Gyousou was the best of the rest, superior even to Emperor Kyou.
“However, in that respect, I was probably in error. I simply cannot believe that the man I served struck down the emperor approved by Heaven.”
Had Asen deceived him or had Keitou failed to assess his true nature? Perhaps he’d placed him on an impossibly high pedestal and then forced whatever he knew to conform to that ideal.
“Even if such compelling circumstances existed and the throne thus fell into his hands, it is beyond the pale that he should treat the kingdom and its people with such cavalier disregard.”
Because Keitou was his retainer, if Asen had said, “Such things cannot be helped,” Keitou would have gone along. That alone might have sufficed, even without Asen explaining himself. If he had maintained the relationship with his retainers that he had before the coup d’état, Keitou likely would not have questioned his actions.
But Asen severed that connection. Nevertheless, Keitou continued to think of himself as his retainer and looked up to Asen as his lord and master. He rationalized that Asen must have had his reasons for the coup, and persuaded himself as well that the merciless purges that followed were unavoidable.
Then any sense of Asen’s presence vanished from the Imperial Court. Keitou was shouldered aside without a title or portfolio. He must have made some sort of mistake. If so, he stubbornly persisted in believing he could put it right.
“I was Asen’s retainer. I thought I only needed to put my faith in him and follow him wherever he chose to go. I convinced myself that was the proper course of action.”
“Asen dispatched Yuushou to Bun Province. He’s been sent there to meet with Gyousou-dono. Asen has known where Gyousou-dono was all along. In short, he’s been keeping him prisoner. He drove the emperor from his seat of power and imprisoned him to prevent him from returning to the palace. Thus he stole the throne. Asen planned and executed this strategy with exacting thoroughness, and so cast Tai in its current condition.”
A plan none of his retainers knew anything about.
“I did not want my lord to stain his hands committing a sin as grievous as regicide. If he felt that circumstances demanded such a course of action, he should have convinced his retainers first. Of course, had I known of these schemes beforehand, I would have stopped them, because I did not wish him to be branded a criminal. Even so, I still hoped to be persuaded there was nothing else he could do. Once he laid it all out, I wanted to agree with him. At the very least, we would shoulder the same sin together and atone for our crimes by working on behalf of the kingdom and its subjects. Asen trampled underfoot every last one of those hopes and expectations.”
Keitou trembled and his voice shook.
“Retainers are foolish creatures. When your lord and commander lays down the law, there is no room for disagreement. The foolishness arises in how a lord and his aides relate to each other. Asen holed up alone in the Rokushin and refuses to meet with the members of his senior staff. He cut all ties. I do not know why. I no longer wish to know why. Having severed the connection between himself and his retainers, Asen became little more than a common thief who stole the throne, threw it away, and now lays waste to the kingdom and persecutes its people.”
Keitou was no longer able to persuade or deceive himself.
“I cannot overlook conduct that stole the throne from an emperor chosen according to the Divine Will. Nor can I excuse actions that squander the authority granted him. Policies that pay no heed to the kingdom and the people and instead rely on tyranny and oppression arouse in me nothing but revulsion.”
He had felt this way for some time. He simply pushed those thoughts out of his mind with the repeated mantra that he was “Asen’s retainer.”
“I cannot concur with the choices that Heaven has made in this regard. I find no reason to accept Asen as the rightful emperor or anything like it. He has no right to occupy the throne. That is why I will not take part in an Asen Dynasty.”
And so Keitou cast off the outer husk of “retainer” and revealed his hon’ne, the essential nature of his soul.
“As long as he lives, Gyousou-sama is the emperor of this kingdom. Only Gyousou-sama should be addressed as His Highness. Asen deserves no such respect.”
At some point, the tears welled up. Were it permissible, he would have sunk to the floor and wailed aloud in grief and mortification.
“Keitou, if Gyousou-sama returned to the throne, would you be willing to work on his behalf?”
“I would, most happily.”
“Even if that meant standing in opposition to Asen?”
With a wild gesture that knocked over a nearby writing desk, Keitou exclaimed, “Look at the state of the kingdom! How many people are going to die this winter? If Asen hadn’t committed high treason, the citizens of Kouki should have enjoyed a temperate winter here in the home of the emperor. Instead they are freezing to death!”
Even in Kouki, people were dying from the cold. Within the city limits, hollow-eyed and exhausted refugees huddled together in growing numbers.
“If rebels are reported to be in a certain city, having no idea who or where they are, do you know how many civilians get slaughtered rooting them out? Even infants not old enough to have reached the age of discretion will meet their deaths by Asen’s hand. Asen is not a man I will ever acknowledge as the emperor. In no way does he belong on the throne.”
Keitou spit out the words and fell silent.
Taiki answered in a soft voice, “Gyousou-sama is the emperor of Tai.”
“I know—” Keitou started to say. He stopped, a startled look rising to his face.
Taiki looked back at him with quiet eyes, like the surface of a lake on a windless day. “Asen is not and has never been the emperor of anything.”
“Taiho—that is—” Keitou felt the blood drain from his head and his knees go weak.
“That is why you are so necessary to me, Keitou.”
Keitou collapsed to the floor and sat there in a daze. “Taiho, what are you doing?”
“What we are doing is saving this kingdom and its rightful emperor. And I need your help to get the job done.”