20-2 The blue bird arrived at Hakkei Palace in the midst of a cold rain.
At the end of the previous month, Yuushou set off from Kouki and led his army to Rin’u. The report delivered by the blue bird confirmed that they were now headed to Kan’you Mountain. Before Gyousou could be extracted from Kan’you Mountain, the buried tunnels and mine shafts had to be excavated. As for the scale and extent of the landslides, all anyone could do was wait for Yuushou’s updates.
To be sure, this was not a task the Imperial Army could handle alone. A large workforce would be required and the army could spare only so many of its soldiers. They would have to recruit local laborers, which in turn required the cooperation of Bun Province. However, with the province lord indisposed, they could not expect the provincial government to act in an expedited manner.
Asen was again sitting on the throne as an acting emperor. The provinces were ordered to devote more resources to aiding the refugees. Except the afflicted province lords were slow off the mark. Unless directed in minute detail, many refused to take the initiative. Some reacted so sluggishly they barely appeared to be doing anything at all. Getting Bun Province moving again meant taking up the reins of local government themselves.
Unfortunately, Shison’s clumsy attempt at a palace coup had created additional delays all the way down to the provincial level.
“These puppets are like dolls,” Rousan said. “Six years—no, more like seven—if left untreated for that long, they turn into invalids. You can issue all the orders in the world to restore Kan’you Mountain, but there’s not enough sense left inside their heads to even comprehend such a plan. If you want the resources of Bun Province at your disposal, you’ll either have to tell them what to do, down to every jot and tittle, or replace the province lord.”
Asen had no choice but to agree. The problem became one of choosing the right person.
“The only person in Chou’un’s Imperial Court competent enough to serve as a province lord is Chou’un. As you might expect, he long ago got rid of anyone more capable than himself.”
Shukuyou raised his voice and said, “What about Keitou?”
Asen furrowed his brows. Keitou was prime minister of Zui Province. Taiki appointed him and wasn’t likely to go along with a reassignment.
“They say the Imperial Court may be leaning a bit too much in the Taiho’s favor of late,” Ansaku said in a furtive whisper.
Even with Asen’s return, the Rikkan continued to look to Taiki. Asen’s actions and many aspects of his impending enthronement remained murky. It was hard for anyone to throw his hands into the air in celebration. On that point, Taiki was not a concern. Heaven guaranteed that the kirin would always act in the right. Believing in Taiki was the clear and uncomplicated thing to do.
The imperial bureaucracy loathed having to contemplate deep and complex thoughts. They had by and large sided with Taiki. Helping to keep them all in line was Keitou.
Keitou was undoubtedly a highly capable civil servant, and reportedly had been in the running for division commander. Though one of Asen’s retainers, Keitou belonged to the Taiki faction. Moreover, he wasn’t simply a member of the Taiki faction. The two of them were said to be of one heart and one mind on most matters.
Even with Asen’s return to active rule and his impending enthronement, Keitou’s confidence in Taiki was unlikely to waver. In Ansaku’s opinion, that made him a potential impediment.
“I see.” A knowing smile rose to Asen’s face. He said to Ansaku, “Peel Keitou away from his side and cut Taiki’s power down to size.”
“Oh, no, such a thing would be out of the question. But I do think it is important to maintain an appropriate balance of power within the Imperial Palace. Questions have been raised.”
Shukuyou had pushed hard for Keitou’s promotion. As far as he was concerned, Keitou was more than qualified for a position in the Ministry of Summer as a vice-minister or assistant of military affairs. For some reason, the appointments never came and he ended up on the payroll but wasting away without a portfolio. This outcome Shukuyou had always regretted and he went out of his way to persuade the head of the Rikkan.
Ansaku whispered to Asen, “Bringing him on board would work too. Keitou has no deficiencies that I can think of.”
Quite out of the blue, and to his utter bewilderment, Keitou found himself promoted to province lord and transferred to Bun Province.
Keitou was currently the prime minister of Zui Province, an appointment Taiki had made himself. Under normal conditions, the policies of the Saiho were seen as indistinguishable from those of the kingdom. But conditions in Tai were hardly normal these days. Zui Province, which was by all rights a part of the kingdom, was acting as an independent political entity.
Keitou said to the envoy, “I fear I am stating the obvious, but I do have a job as provincial prime minister.”
The envoy told him in no uncertain terms that he was delivering an order and the matter was not up for debate.
All the more confused, Keitou turned to Taiki. “I know,” Taiki replied. “But I’d like you to accept.”
Keitou asked in astonishment, “You’re asking me to become the province lord of Bun?”
“Yes, I am. I strongly recommended you to Shukuyou for the position.”
Why? Keitou didn’t know how to respond. He felt a profound sense of disappointment. “You said my contributions were necessary here. Are you now saying my services are no longer required?”
“Nothing of the sort.” Taiki looked straight at him. “You are absolutely necessary. There is nobody else of whom I can make such a request. That is why I asked Shukuyou for the transfer. I need you to go to Bun Province.”
“His Highness is in Bun Province.”
Keitou fell silent. Gyousou was currently said to be in or on Kan’you Mountain. The Imperial Army had been mobilized to bring him back to Kouki so he could abdicate.
“In order to save Gyousou-sama, Risai also traveled to Bun Province.”
“Risai—you mean, General Ryuu? The previous Zui Province commander?”
Taiki nodded. “I don’t know how close to Gyousou-sama Risai and her colleagues have gotten. But with the Imperial Army on the move and events unfolding on Kan’you Mountain, it follows that Gyousou-sama must be there too. They’re heading there to extract him. The remnants of Gyousou-sama’s retainers in Bun Province are going to take note as well and their presence will become clear.”
Though once exposed, they would be branded rebels.
“Keitou, I need to have you there in Bun Province when things come to a boil.”
Ah, Keitou thought to himself. If he was there and orders came down for the Imperial Army to attack, he’d be in the position to intercept them. Far from merely disrupting the chain of command, he could even use the Provincial Guard to support Risai. In the unfortunate case that Gyousou was captured by the Imperial Army, he could use peaceful bureaucratic means to keep him detained there when the Imperial Army returned to Kouki.
And then there were the far more blatant strategies to consider, the thought of which made Keitou shiver. A burning sense of exhilaration welled up from deep within his chest. Open the castle gates and invite in Gyousou and the rebels.
Throughout the long spell of Asen’s tyranny, none had suffered more than Bun Province. That cold and cursed land was further ravaged by the eradication campaigns. Reduced to little more than a mindless puppet, the province lord was left where he was, abandoned amidst all this misfortune.
If Keitou left for Bun Province, he’d not only be in the position to save all of those people but rescue Gyousou and even raise the flag of revolt against Asen.
“Please accept this assignment, Keitou.”
“I will do so happily.”
“Thank you,” Taiki said, taking Keitou’s hand in his own. “You’ve been a great help to me. Quite honestly, it will be hard carrying on without you.”
“I feel the same. Not being able to work here by your side—”
“You needn’t worry about me. Bun Province, Gyousou-sama, and Risai are now in your capable hands.”
“I will do my upmost.”
Keitou was formally installed and set off for Bun Province under a cool and cloudless sky that presaged warmer days to come. He left Kouki with a newly appointed inspector and chamberlain, escorted by a detachment from General Shinryou’s army. Taiki had chosen them from among Keitou’s trusted associates. So he could keep in touch with them directly, he entrusted them with a blue bird as well.
Seeing them off, Yari stressed the importance of keeping the wooden amulets on their persons. “The first thing on the agenda when you get to Bun Province is to hunt down the jisen. Even after you’ve secured an area, keep one with you at all times.”
Keitou answered with a grave nod. He respectfully took Taiki’s hand and bowed deeply. Soon thereafter, he disappeared into the distance across roads still packed with snow.
Kakei succeeded Keitou as prime minister. He’d been Kaihaku’s right-hand man. He and Kaihaku were widely considered capable civil servants with good reputations. Though bearing the mien of an elderly gentleman, Kakei arrived on the job with sleeves rolled up, ready to grab the rudder and steer the ship along the course Keitou had laid out.
The cold began to abate and a more optimistic air flowed through Kouki. Refugees flooded into the city. The ministries tasked with handling the social services were prepared for their arrival, and parceled them out to the towns surrounding Kouki that had room to spare and were badly in need of workers.
The lingering snow melted away. The land was soon ready for the first tilling and farmhands were in equally short supply. In order to ensure there would be enough food to go around come fall, Zui Province made all the necessary materials available through loan programs. With a collective sigh of relief, the farmers commenced repairing their tools and getting ready for planting season.
However, in the northern provinces of Tai, the snow still lay heavy on the ground.
And Bun Province was on the cusp of a major turning point.