4-3 Along with the Koushi and other upcoming festivals of the midwinter solstice, a giddy atmosphere once again enveloped Kinpa Palace. At the height of the celebrations, an incident shook the capital. A large cache of weapons was discovered at the home of Taisai, head of the Ministry of Heaven.
The report was delivered in the middle of the night by Daishikou, the head of the Ministry of Fall. Youko stood there dumbstruck.
"It appears as if preparations were being made for a coup."
They had been stockpiling weapons with the intent of assassinating her, the empress.
"We were informed by a number of Taisai's retainers, who rushed to the Ministry of Fall to warn us. Not believing it ourselves, we retraced their steps and found the cache of weapons. We later took ten mercenaries into custody at Taisai's villa in Gyouten."
Undoubtedly, Taisai had shown himself to be the least satisfied with her. He often clashed with Chousai Seikyou, and it was widely rumored that Youko deferred to Seikyou at every opportunity. But that it would come down to regicide horrified her. Even knowing full well that the bureaucracy by and large still did not accept her, she had no idea that they hated her enough to amass weapons and attempt an assassination.
"Oh," she said.
"We were able to arrest them before the plan could be carried out. Because the ministry Taisai heads is responsible for the operations of the palace, particularly the inner palace, officials serving Your Highness are mostly already in custody. If any of them are found to be bearing weapons and are involved in the plot, how shall we deal with them?"
Youko could do nothing more than gulp for air.
"Interrogations are being conducted as we speak. According to the investigation so far, Taisai may have involved the Sankou as well, with the backing of the Marquis of Baku--I mean, Koukan."
Youko took another deep breath.
The three members of the Sankou were Taishi (Lord Privy Seal), Taifu (Minister of the Left) and Taiho (Minister of the Right). They were subordinate to Keiki, who was the principal counselor (Saiho) of all the ministers. They assisted the Saiho and advised and admonished the empress. Her education was also the province of the Sankou. In terms of rank, they were treated the same as Chousai, minister-in-chief of the Rikkan, and the province lords. However, they did not actually have a direct say in the political process. Consequently, they clashed often with Chousai, and like Taisai often rebuked Youko for taking Chousai's side. However, they were also a more intimate presence than Seikyou or the Rikkan.
Would the Sankou have become involved in an assassination plot?
At the palace, the Ministry of Heaven was responsible for food, shelter and clothing. Because they were so involved and helpful in her day-to-day life, the relationship had a strongly paternalistic aspect to it. To think that the head of the Ministry of Heaven and the Sankou would be plotting a coup d'etat!
"But the Marquis of Baku . . . . "
He had resisted the pretender but had coveted the throne for himself. He had subsequently been detained in Baku Province pending reinstatement. The opinion of her retainers as to the disposition of his case was divided between the faction led by Chousai and that led by Taisai, and so remained up in the air.
"And this is how they express their dissatisfaction. . . . "
Amongst her retainers, the opinion was gaining strength that Koukan should be punished and any subsequent second-guessing about the matter nipped in the bud. Keiki strongly objected and Koukan had been placed under house arrest. This, then, was the result of Keiki's compassion.
"At any rate, I'd like to talk to Taisai. Bring him here."
Koukan was presently being held at the capital of Baku Province. Right now, Youko wanted to hear whatever excuses or explanations Taisai had to offer from the horse's mouth. But that was not to be.
Taisai was found dead in his cell.
Keiki came into the room as Daishikou was leaving. He asked, furrowing his brow, "Empress, Taisai is dead?"
"Reportedly a suicide."
Keiki sighed deeply. "It is said that you have been relying too much on Chousai."
Youko narrowed her eyes. "Are you saying that this is my fault? My fault that Taisai arranged this little conspiracy, my fault that he's dead?"
"Polarizing the loyalties of one's retainers is an open invitation to needless strife."
"Certainly when it came to this business with Koukan, I accepted Chousai's recommendation that he be dismissed. Are you saying that I should have left Koukan as Marquis of Baku?"
"Koukan blamed his dismissal on me and cooked up this plot with Taisai and the Sankou. Is that my fault, too?"
"Empress . . . . "
"There are those of my retainers who would be pleased to see an end to Koukan. The prevailing opinion apparently is that I should cut to the chase and save the regrets for later. So tell me, who opposed it? So Koukan lives on and gets back at me by plotting this assassination. Tell me, is that my fault?"
Keiki was too taken aback to speak.
"There's no doubt that Chousai and Taisai don't see eye to eye very often, but Chousai is head of the Rikkan while Taisai is in charge of palace housekeeping. Taisai rose to the post from head of the Ministry of Spring, in charge of rites and rituals, while Chousai came from the Ministries of Fall and Earth. As justice is the province of the Ministry of Earth, law is naturally Chousai's strong suit. What exactly is wrong about giving his opinions preference in this regard?"
"Empress, that is not what I meant."
"Then what did you mean?"
Keiki couldn't find the words to reply.
"This time around, Chousai is going to ask me to go ahead and sentence Koukan. I don't see that I have any grounds to disagree. Do you disagree?"
"I would ask that you listen to Koukan's version of events."
"Of course I will. I've already ordered that the Minister of Fall go and bring him here. I expect Koukan to deny everything. But we now have evidence of frequent envoys being sent under Koukan's auspices to Taisai's residence, and bearing weapons with them. What do you think I should do at a time like this?"
"When judging one's subjects, I would counsel compassion."
"And have the same thing happen all over again?"
Keiki had nothing to add to that.
Youko averted her gaze and looked out the window instead. "You and the ministers, you have a pretty low regard for me. Because I'm a woman, because I'm a taika, it's in every damned sigh I hear."
"Empress, I swear that is not the case."
Youko shook her head. "Chousai will say, see, I told you so. And he'll tell me to come down hard on Koukan and the Sankou. If I agree, you're not going to be happy with me. If I reject their advice, Chousai and his people won't be happy. So, what to do?"
"Empress . . . . "
Youko took a breath, exhaled, and said, "Koukan and the Sankou will be disciplined. The Sankou will be dismissed from their positions and exiled along with Koukan. This cannot go unpunished. You do not condone execution, so they will not be executed. Is that okay with you?"
Keiki opened and closed his mouth without speaking.
"I understand," he answered shortly, followed by a long sigh, a sigh that spoke volumes.
Meaning, Keiki is not happy.
Youko stared out at the dawn breaking over the Sea of Clouds. She laughed. "Shall I issue an Imperial Rescript banning sighing?"
"You may get tired of breathing your little sighs, but I am really getting tired of hearing them." With that, Youko waved her hand. "You may leave. I need to rest. All these meetings have left me at wit's end."
As expected, Chousai Seikyou and his faction insisted that Koukan and the Sankou be sentenced to death. "You must understand that in Koukan's case, if you show leniency now, it will only be paid back with disloyalty later on."
She could hear the dissatisfaction in Seikyou's voice. Some people were saying that Taisai's attempted insurrection itself was a misunderstanding. Some people were saying he had his reasons and that these reasons should be ferreted out, that in order to prevent more grief down the road the source of the problem should be addressed. And some people were saying that when it came to sentencing, she should show compassion first.
What all these people had in common was their opposition to Seikyou. The Imperial Court was divided into a pro-Seikyou faction and an anti-Seikyou faction. If Seikyou had recommended amnesty, his opponents would just as surely have asked for the sword.
Youko had never imagined that governing a country would be an easy thing. But she had never imagined difficulties like these. No matter what she said, her supposed subordinates would sigh their implicit criticisms. And now she had retainers for whom sighing wasn't enough and were compelled to take up arms. Youko understood nothing of this world, had no other recourse than to pay close attention to what her advisors said and scrutinize their explanations the best she could. She didn't want to hear any more sighs. But no matter what opinion she adopted, the opposing side would be the one sighing. In the end, with both sides fighting for authority, she wasn't going to please anyone.
Well, then, she thought, permitting herself a private sigh. She suddenly looked up. Without really being aware of it, she had been trying to win them over. So phobic had she become of the murmurs of discontent, that wasn't she now trying to read a book into every glancing expression, curry their favor and generally kiss up?
She was overcome with the urge to cast aside this cloying creature she had become.
She said to Chousai, "What should I make of the fact that you were completely unaware of Taisai's scheming in the first place?"
"Taisai was not happy with me and let his temper get the best of him."
"Bearing arms against the king is treason. What more do you need to know about him?"
"I would like to inquire more of the officials who left Koukan to his own devices."
"And where is Koukan? The Minister of Fall has a lot to answer for, letting him get away like that."
While being escorted from Baku Province to Gyouten, Koukan had escaped. Officials from the ministry had pursued him but had not yet found him.
Enough already. Youko smiled sardonically to herself. "I understand," she said aloud. "I order that the Sankou be dismissed and along with Koukan exiled from the kingdom."
Too lenient, came the response from Seikyou's faction. Too severe, came the response from the opposing faction.
"And if the same thing happens again, what will Your Highness do?" queried Chousai Seikyou, looking at her.
"The conduct of the Rikkan is your responsibility. Treason arose from within the Rikkan under your watch. You will step down as Chousai and take over the Ministry of Heaven in place of Taisai."
The gathered ministers gasped. Youko laughed softly. "There are openings in the Sankou. The ministers of Spring, Fall and Earth are hereby appointed to those posts."
"Empress . . . . " said Keiki.
Youko silenced him with a look. "The remaining positions I leave to the ministers to fill at their own discretion. However, for the time being, Keiki will assume the post of Chousai."
The cries of distress arose. "This is unheard of! Giving acting authority to the Saiho!"
Youko only response was, "Consider it an Imperial Rescript!"
With that, she stepped down from the throne and left the room.