21-5 The day after the air cavalry departed Kouki for Ba Province, Taiki barged in on Asen while he was delivering orders to Shukuyou.
Taiki’s face was flushed and his hair disheveled. “I heard you know the location of Gyousou-sama.”
Asen dismissed Shukuyou with a wave of his hand. “So it seems. Right now my men are headed there to take him into custody.”
“I was told you sent the air cavalry from the Zui Provincial Army of the Center. I would like an explanation for why you mobilized the Provincial Guard without my authorization.”
It being in a kirin’s nature of abhor war, he could not lead the armed forces into battle. Thus the Zui Provincial Guard fell under the command of the emperor.
“Time is of the essence. This is an emergency situation.”
“I understand the need to act with haste. But I was not given even the courtesy of being told that Gyousou-sama had been found. Moreover, if only as a matter of formalities, mustering the Zui Provincial Guard is the sole prerogative of the province lord, namely myself. I would ask you to please refrain from arbitrarily assuming control of the Provincial Guard without consulting with me beforehand.”
Asen tented his fingers. “As I said, it was an emergency.”
“Without a doubt, you must meet with Gyousou-sama. After all, I am the one who made the request in the first place. But why ignore me on a matter as grave as mobilizing the Provincial Guard? Was there some reason you could not persuade me of the necessity to do so? This is otherwise not something I can simply close my eyes to.”
Asen peered through the triangle of his tented fingers and smiled. “And if you cannot close your eyes to my reasons, then what? Will you petition Heaven and withdraw the Divine Will? Or order your shirei to remove my head from my shoulders?”
Taiki sighed. “I’m trying to carry on a serious conversation here. Going forward, I’m simply asking you to consider your actions more prudence and foresight. I’d also like to hear a good reason for deploying my Provincial Guard.”
“I am deploying your Provincial Guard to apprehend Gyousou and exterminate the outlaws.”
“The rebel forces. They can no longer be left to their own devices.”
“Those rebel forces rose up because of their dissatisfaction with your policies. Why not first familiarize yourself with the substance of those grievances? The Imperial Court as well is in desperate need of reform.”
“Oh, you never can kill all of them. I’m sure a few will crawl out of their holes afterward. I’ll listen to what they have to say then.”
Taiki gave Asen a long look. He sighed again. “Fine. Whatever.” He turned on his heels and started to walk away.
“Where are you going?”
“If you are going to do however you see fit, then I will do what I have to do too.”
“You mean, get in touch with Keitou and tell him to lend a hand to the outlaws?”
Taiki stopped in his tracks and glanced back over his shoulder at Asen, his features exceedingly calm. “I sent Keitou to Bun Province in anticipation of this moment. When he arrives, he will replace the province lord. I instructed him to use all due discretion in the subjugation of the rebel forces, and depending on the circumstances, indeed, lend them his support.”
Asen once more studied his tented fingers. “I take it you consider Keitou a close ally and one you can trust. That you would send him off to Bun Province, out of sight and beyond your reach, speaks to your trust in him. But I have to wonder whether he will arrive in one piece.”
Taiki paled. He stood there stock still. A thin smile on his face, Asen reached into his pocket and took out a sheet of paper—or rather, a sheet of paper torn in two—and held it up for Taiki to see.
“A paper talisman. It and the wooden amulet are a pair.”
Taiki craned his head to one size in puzzlement. Then he took a sudden breath and said, “What do you mean by this?” The firmness of the inquiry could not disguise the quaver in his voice.
“It means exactly what it looks like. I tore it apart when Keitou left Kouki. The amulet he is carrying is no more effective than any other piece of scrap wood.”
“Keitou is one of your retainers.”
“Was. The past tense is more appropriate now. I no longer count Keitou among my men.”
“Think more carefully about what you are doing! What will you do if Heaven withdraws the Divine Will?”
“Now who’s losing his temper?” Asen chuckled. “Coming from you, a rare sight.” Then he added in a low voice, “The whole thing was a lie.”
Taiki held his tongue.
“Of course, I mean your story about me being the new emperor. That’s all it ever was, a sham from the start.”
Responding to the questioning look on Taiki’s face, a wry smile rose to Asen’s face. “Did you really think I believed you for a second?”
Asen had played along but not once had the play been anything but a charade. The reasons were simple and straightforward. Asen knew better than anyone how far he had departed from the Way. He had stolen the throne from the emperor chosen according to the Will of Heaven. And then in order to keep possession of those pilfered goods, had slaughtered his own supposed subjects.
The Divine Will could not possibly descend upon the shoulders of a person capable of stooping to such depths.
But theology was the least of Asen’s evidence. He could make youma his shirei. Taiki was surrounded by youma. And yet Taiki—and Taiki’s shirei—not only took no notice of them but showed no inclination to defeat or subjugate them.
That was why Asen had severed Taiki’s horn in the first place. He heard from Rousan that doing so would seal his powers as a kirin. That being the case, how could Taiki hear the word of Heaven?
Taiki spun this deception out of whole cloth. Asen had been wise to it all along.
When he said as much, Gyousou’s humble servant responded shortly, his face pale, “Implausible.”
Asen laughed under his breath. As a kirin, the kid had guts, on a par with a veteran soldier.
That hadn’t been the case when Asen attacked him with his sword. He appeared a fragile child, with those around him expending all effort and affection to cradle that gentle heart with the greatest care.
The kirin was said to be the personification of compassion. All the more so with such a young kirin, harboring a soul as pure as his crystal-clear eyes. When Asen raised his sword, those eyes looking back at him were no less lucid.
Asen could not forgive those eyes, all the more so because of their purity. This young kirin had chosen Gyousou with those eyes, unsullied by a single speck of corruption.
If only he could bring himself to believe that a kirin was capable of acting with depraved motivations or with the kirin’s own self-interests in mind. But this young child left no room for doubt.
Asen swung with every intent of killing the kirin. At the last moment, some lingering spark of reason caused him to shift the sweep of the sword. The blade instead sank into his horn. Even the scream ringing in his ears did not arouse in him an iota of sympathy. He felt only the joy in realizing his revenge and the regret that he had not killed him.
And then the kirin vanished from this world. He would never have to look into those eyes again.
Or so he thought. Six years later, the kirin returned. This time around he proved a frighteningly difficult adversary to deal with.
Asen was certainly startled to hear himself declared the new emperor. Although caught off guard, he didn’t believe it. In the first place, Gyousou was still alive. Two emperors could not reign at the same time. On top of that, at least if Rousan could be trusted, no emperor could be succeeded by someone with the same surname.
He doubted as well that a kirin missing his horn could hear the Divine Will. And given his usurpation and the subsequential slaughter of his own supposed subjects, he could imagine no scenario in which Heaven would smile upon him. That being the case, Asen’s immediate assumption was that this must be a subterfuge. Taiki had ulterior motives in mind.
But what were those ulterior motives? Did he want to save Gyousou? Gyousou was nowhere near Hakkei Palace. And in any case, Asen was in no position to interfere. If Taiki was inclined to save Gyousou, Asen would like to see him try.
Asen would very much like to see him try. Or was he more interested in the people of Tai?
Curious about his true intentions, Asen decided to meet him. Taiki’s eyes were as clear as they had always been, but Asen sensed none of the anger in himself he had before. Rather, emotions stirred that he hadn’t felt in a long time. In the person of Taiki, here was the return of an implacable foe.
He lost interest in Taiki’s intentions. He didn’t know what the point of this farce was, but whatever it was, Asen wanted to watch how it turned out. He wanted to watch him try and save Gyousou. He wanted to watch him navigate the obstructions thrown into his path by Chou’un and his clique.
And maybe deep down that feeling meant he wanted to watch Taiki to take on Asen himself.
Asen didn’t lift a finger to help. He unleashed the jisen and stripped Taiki of his allies. What he really wanted to see was a fight on Taiki’s own terms. Oust Chou’un, rescue Gyousou, and save Tai, and do it all by himself. If that was even possible.
He knew that Chou’un couldn’t stop picking fights with Taiki. Served only by the mindless puppets, Asen holed up deep within the Imperial Palace. While making it look as if he’d lost all interest in political matters, he wasn’t so foolish as to hand over the reins of government to Chou’un and his ilk.
Asen planted spies and informants around Chou’un and the ministers of the Rikkan. He knew what they were thinking and doing practically before they did. Of course, Taiki was no exception. He had his troops observe Taiki’s every move. Taiki, however, took more precautions than Asen expected, making it difficult to anticipate the cards he was about to play.
“Naming me the new emperor and returning to Hakkei Palace was a clever move.”
Asen didn’t believe him and Chou’un’s faction in the Imperial Court harbored all sorts of doubts. But they had no evidence to say one way or the other. After all, the kirin alone comprehended the Word of Heaven. Everyone around him had no option but to believe in the inherent goodness of the kirin and accept everything he said.
But the situation did not develop as Taiki hoped. Growing impatient, he snuck into the Rokushin. Asen was delighted. This is one audacious kirin. Taiki told him to step out of the shadows and take charge. Asen was not inclined to do so, but neither was he going to stand back and let Taiki have the run of the palace.
At a loss what to do next, Taiki attempted to reach out to Seirai. The Daiboku failed to rescue him and absconded. And so Taiki lost his biggest ally. Another welcome development. Taiki was but a single person. It was only right that he should have to get the whole job done by himself.
Except Taiki began building a camp of followers in earnest. He brushed aside Chou’un’s enmity and quietly but effectively tilted the Imperial Court in his favor. He turned his attention to the welfare of the people and produced results. While encountering the same pushback from Chou’un as ever, he slowly but surely turned the tables on him.
Enemies though they were, Asen was impressed. At the same time, those murderous impulses welled up in his heart. Kill Gyousou. Vanquish Taiki. Lay waste to the world. If he really was the emperor, then force him to make the covenant. If that was even possible.
But Taiki went ahead and did it.
That planted a small seed of doubt in his mind. Asen still couldn’t bring himself to believe he was the new emperor. If true, then with the covenant in place, he should not feel this overwhelming sense of defeat. No, the whole thing was a scheme hatched by Taiki. Taiki couldn’t actually make Asen emperor. And so it followed that Asen going along with this scheme should back Taiki into a corner.
That’s why he played along. More than anything else, he had no desire to see Gyousou come back to life and no intention of restoring Taiki to his original position of authority. Well, no. He was fine with bringing them all back as long as he could crush their hopes and dreams.
Asen looked at Taiki, who stood there once again adorned with serenity. He wanted only to destroy them with despair and see them face down in the dirt. That’s all he was asking for.
“You were in the wrong for choosing Gyousou in the first place. After this, I will see you live to regret that decision.”
Taiki at last lost that aura of sangfroid. His face pale, a look of bewilderment filled those clear eyes.
Asen smiled. “Whatever grudges you might harbor henceforth, direct them at Heaven for choosing Gyousou.”
Asen swore revenge on Heaven. The pretender who stole the throne and set forth to revive the kingdom would surely see those efforts come to naught. Because Heaven withheld its blessings and its divine protection. But he could murder a kingdom with impunity. Providence itself was Asen’s ally now.
Later that day, after Taiki returned to Nightingale Manor, the Imperial Army marched in. At the head of the company of soldiers was the Minister of Fall, who announced that Kakei was suspected of treason. Chou’un had provided testimony to that effect.
“Impossible!” Taiki declared, but his protests were summarily dismissed.
Kakei, the provincial prime minister, was escorted off the premises for questioning.
“Taiho—” said an anxious Juntatsu, watching as the gates were closed and the building was sealed from the outside.
“Don’t worry. They don’t intend to reach into my immediate vicinity.”
Though Taiki spoke with an icy composure, he was clearly putting on a brave front. The provincial Rikkan was shut out of its offices and any remaining government officials were banished from Nightingale Manor. The only people left in Taiki’s entourage were Ganchou, Yari, and Juntatsu.
Not only Nightingale Manor, for the time being, no one was allowed access to the main courtyard. The Minister of Fall explained that these measures were being taken to thwart further acts of rebellion. Though everybody knew there wasn’t a particle of truth in a thing he said.