'Here is no water but only rock'
Three youkai beasts lay unconscious in the sandy scrub above the sea, their gargantuan bodies like the foothills of some distant mountain range. Tenpou's squad stood catching their breaths after the recent melee. Tenpou was feeling a desperate desire for his customary post-action cigarette, but custom, unfortunately, had been abrogated this time around.
"That was a close call, Marshal."
"Too close. We'll have to up the dosages of anesthetic."
"Evidently. This looks like a new breed of animal."
"I've never *seen* ones this big!" Ganshu said explosively. Nerves and reaction. The lieutenant had been charged head on by their first quarry, against all experience and likelihood. The animal had no more registered the two tranquilizer darts in its flank than it would a gnat bite.
"Big. Thick-skinned." Goujun tapped the hide of the nearest beast in a considering manner.
"More belligerent than the usual," Tenpou observed.
"And faster than they ought to be for the size they are," Kenren added.
Goujun grunted unwilling agreement. "Reports from the third squad said the same thing. I'd hoped they were exaggerated."
Tenpou and Kenren traded glances. 'So that's why he came with us', Tenpou's said.
'*One* reason,' Kenren's sour expression answered. 'Bet he's still looking for an excuse to cashier me.'
Which was probably true as well. Kenren's chronic provoking of the upper brass was a useful habit, since men who've lost their tempers are careless about what they say. But there was always a danger of it back-firing, as it had over in the Eastern army. And then I'd lose one of my best sources.
"Very well." Goujun's voice broke through his thoughts. "Bind and drag, gentlemen."
Tenpou nodded to Kenren, properly delegating the grunt work to his subordinate. Who did *not* delegate it in turn to his own underlings, as most generals would. Kenren liked to make sure things were done right on his watch. Tenpou and his silent commander watched him call in the back-up teams and get them into place, ready to fasten cables about the huge legs and transport the beasts away from the mortals' village.
"Hands-on officer," Goujun observed, his tone saying nothing about his opinion of hands-on officers.
"Yes, sir. Makes for efficiency." Which it did-- was, in fact, doing so right before their eyes. "The men work better for an officer they know and like, who's there in the middle of it with them."
"But that efficiency comes at the cost of a proper respect for rank."
Too much to expect a commanding officer to take the democratic view of things. "It's usually replaced by a respect for the man himself."
"And when the man himself decides to go his own way, what stops his men from following? That sort of thing is dangerous, Marshal."
Nor could one expect a dragon to be anything but hidebound, given how much hide a dragon has.
"Yes, sir," he said agreeably, knowing that last remark probably contained a mild rebuke to himself. His own peculiarities were well known to his commander-- known long before Goujun had raised him to Marshal's rank. But a solitary eccentric can safely be allowed to bend the rules, which was why Tenpou worked so hard at being solitary and eccentric. Eccentrics are dangerous only if they're both disaffected and wildly popular with their men. Tenpou *was* popular with his men, a fact that still surprised him, but he managed to keep it within bounds. The upper echelons would never see bookish Marshal Tenpou with a flask at his hip, carousing with the lower ranks and enlisted men.
As for disaffection... well, that was Tenpou's own business. He pulled himself back into the present, looking to Goujun for the signal to leave. Celestials have a horror of the brute nastiness of Down Below. His surveillance accomplished, Goujun would be happy to take himself back to the peaceful order of his offices in Heaven, and probably to a bath as well.
Goujun, however, merely stood watching the swarm of bodies before them in blank-eyed stolidity. Oh dear. Officers' duty: Goujun wasn't going to go until the work was done and the whole squad ready to return home together. An hour yet, at the very least. Tenpou squirmed inwardly. With Goujun there he couldn't wade in to lend a hand as he'd normally do; much less could he leave it to Kenren's reliable efficiency and return to his study, and his studies, up above.
"They seem to have the job under control," he hinted.
Goujun's head turned fractionally in his direction. "Mh? Yes." His gaze moved away and became fixed again. Tenpou tried to see what was holding his commander's attention so, but failed. The usual problem with dragon eyes-- the iris and pupil so tiny amid the blood-red that you can't tell where they're focussed until, usually, too late-- when the officer who has so clearly been engrossed in the documents on his desk proves to have been watching your every move. Tenpou made a swift survey of the three squads before them. Everything as it should be; a lot of banter and noise, but the men working well and cheerfully, and best of all quickly, to get the monsters away. Aside from that, nothing-- the beach empty even of excited onlookers, and beyond that the sea empty of anything at all.
Goujun began to walk, skirting the abandoned body of the beast that was being left to the last. Tenpou followed after: down the angling dune in the lee of the great animal and onto the pebbly slime of the beach itself. Once in the open his ears were overpowered by the din of the waves. Great glassy-green breakers, foaming at the edges, landing violently on the beach and drawing away again with an unmusical rattling of pebbles. Trailing after Goujun, Tenpou was aware of an unplaceable fretfulness. Something about the constant movement of the water, the constant crash and hiss, the constant restless busyness everywhere, jangled his nerves. Nothing could be farther from the accustomed peace and order of his usual life Up Above.
'And since when have I been a fan of Heaven's order?' Tenpou wondered, raising eyebrows at himself. The mission just finished-- that had been loud and thundering and confused as well. It was also immensely satisfying. It had a purpose and a strategy, it had a beginning and an end-- and *he* was the one who'd decided what all those were. But this... he looked out at the rolling waves-- this sheer mass of *water* had none of that. Noise, motion, violence: no limit, no ending. No intelligence to it, as there was even in the slow brains of the youkai beasts; just blind energy that smashed and destroyed, without will and without malice. He shivered.
He hadn't been until that moment. And then two quite separate facts merged seamlessly in his head, and his hands were ice.
"No, sir." He cast about for something safe to say. "Overawed, maybe?"
That brought Goujun's head round; the red eyes-- no, the tiny split pupils-- finally looked right at him.
There was a note that might have been pleasure in his voice. Some of the tension cramping Tenpou's muscles eased. Goujun looked away again. Back at the sea.
His sea. The Western Ocean, whose shore they were standing on now.
It would never occur to you, working with him day after day, handing in the usual reports of troop maneuvers and missions. Up in the dry courts of Heaven, where the only water one sees comes out of fountains and taps. Goujun was so unquestioning a part of Heaven's workings, such a celestial stickler for protocol, so very-- yes-- *hidebound*.
But *this* is what he comes from. No-- this is what he /is/. This... turbulence. This largeness. This force.
"Could the ocean overwhelm the land, ever?" he heard his voice asking.
"Of course." Goujun sounded a little surprised. "If I let it."
"Oh. So this--" he waved a vague hand at the mountainous waves-- "is actually... held within some kind of bounds?"
Goujun's voice was dry. "It had better be."
Tenpou coughed. "It just looks-- so *un*bound. To me, I mean."
"If it was unbound, you wouldn't be here."
It was a statement only, no hint of a threat. Tenpou looked at the waves roaring as they reared their huge heads up, like youkai beasts caught in his squadron's nets, before collapsing into foam on the beach, like youkai beasts drugged into harmlessness. The sea in bounds, and the sea's master, in bounds.
He stifled the thought before Goujun could see him thinking it; turned a blank look on his commander, and blinked to find him working at the fastenings of his coat.
"Allow me, sir?"
"Thank you. I didn't think to bring my batman."
Keeping his curiosity under leash, Tenpou undid the many frogs of the coat and helped Goujun peel the tight sleeves from his forearms. The shirt underneath was made in one piece; Goujun slipped it over his head.
"The boots," Goujun said.
Curiouser and curiouser, Tenpou thought, but knelt and pulled them from Goujun's feet, with Goujun holding on to his shoulder for balance. Goujun's claws-- *claws*-- were sharp through the leather of Tenpou's uniform. Goujun heeled-and-toe his socks off, and then undid his belt and stripped off his trousers.
"I'll be back shortly," he said, and turned towards the sea.
"Sir-- excuse me-- but where are you going?" Vague visions of underwater palaces and consultations with dragon advisors went through his head, to be cut short by Goujun's brief answer.
"Swimming." He finally registered Tenpou's expression. "You don't swim, do you?"
"No sir." He looked askance at the wild waves.
Goujun grunted. "I'd advise you not to start. At least, not here."
"I wasn't about to. Not my element."
And at that Goujun smiled, one of his sideways and infinitely disconcerting smiles. "But as you've observed, it *is* mine."
And then he was gone, plunging into the towering waves as if they had no existence at all.
Tenpou moved his commander's uniform back a few metres, out of the spray-- not that Goujun would mind if it was wet, probably, but Tenpou himself wanted to be dry; found a relatively unbarnacled rock, and sat down to enjoy his long-deferred cigarette. And to consider the structure of power in Heaven, and how you never knew: water might indeed flow out of a rock.