(Note: Somehow Kenren who starts out as Tenpou's subordinate when he first comes to the western army- as per the flashback in the April 01 GFantasy- winds up with Tenpou as *his* adjutant by the start of the series. Most unusual, since a Marshal outranks a General and shouldn't be serving in a position junior to one. What happened? This is my guess.)

 

 

Back Then

 

1.

            "I'm thinking," Tenpou said, "that I might retire."

            Startled silence. Then-

            "Retire, huh?" Kenren said. "Leave the army?"

            "Not exactly."

            "Then what?"

            "Resign this position. Commanding isn't my forte, I think."

            "I'll say. You want a definition of 'superfluous', it's called being one of Tenpou Gensui's men."

            "Oh?"

            "Oh. You always gotta do everything on your own."

            "Anh. You may be right. That way avoids errors, at least."

            "You want it done right, do it yourself?"

            "Basically."

            "Well, maybe. Makes a man feel like a fifth wheel, of course."

            "Anh. Apologies. The fact is--"

            "Mh?"

            "I was thinking of taking a more junior position. Something less in the public eye- something that would leave me more time for my studies--"

            "More what?? You don't need any more time--" Kenren paused, eyebrows crooking. "A junior position? Kind of unorthodox, isn't it?"

            "Yes, I believe it is. But then, so am I."

            "Mnh. True. You think Goujun will buy it?"

            "I think I can persuade him."

            "Oh." Pause. "I'll miss you, I guess. Enjoyed working with you. It's been fun." He smiled. "But of course, you and those books--"

            "The fact is--" Tenpou became very busy with a refractory lighter. "-I think the flint's dead on this."

            "Here." Kenren flicked his own and Tenpou lit another cigarette.

            "Thank you. The fact is, I was going to ask to be your adjutant."

            "My-- you wanna work under me??"

            "Well, yes. I can work with you. The past few years have proved that."

            "Yes, but--"

            "And we get along."

            "Yes, but--"

            "And you wouldn't work me very hard, would you?"

            "If that's supposed to be a comment on how I do my job--"

            "It's not."

            "Oh." The lightbulb went on. "And I don't have any axes to grind, do I?"

            "There are people who wouldn't mind making me pay for my umm heterodoxy, if they were given the chance."

            "Well, that's not me. But I'd have said it /was/ Goujun."

            "The Dragon values efficiency. I'm at least efficient."

            "Will he believe that if you ask to switch positions with me? Right now he probably thinks you're the only thing keeping me in line."

            "As I say, I think I have enough credit with him to get my way."

            "Mhh. Well, I don't have anything against the idea. May feel a bit funny to start with. I'm used to taking orders from you."

            "You're used to bossing me around and managing me."

            "So now's your chance to get even?"

            "Heavens, no. Managing you would be a full-time occupation. I'd have no time left over for study. You can go on giving the orders." Tenpou waved a generous hand.

"Hmph," Kenren snorted. "You know what people will be thinking?"

            "They'll think I'm lazy- keeping the rank and resigning the duties."

            "They'll think I'm screwing you and not liking taking orders from my current lay."

            "Surely not?" Tenpou said, looking startled. "I'd have thought your reputation would--" He floundered a bit. "Would protect you from that kind of talk, at least."

            "Kenren the skirt-chaser?"

            Tenpou flushed. "I didn't say that."

            "No. Right. You didn't."

            "You're angry. I apologize--"

            "Tenpou."

            Silence.

"Yes?"

            "You gonna tell me?"

            Silence.

"It's the drawback to your being so bright, I suppose. You see too much. It's a touch inconvenient." Tenpou drew on his cigarette and frowned into space.

            Kenren waited. The silence went on.

            "I take it that means no?"

            "I'm sorry."

            "Too dangerous for me?"

            "No. Hardly."

            "Private then?"

            "Kenren."

            "Stop asking questions. OK."

Tenpou took another drag on his cigarette. Went on looking into space. "You'll play your part better if you don't know what it is."

            "Oh." Kenren felt his shoulders stiffening. "Like that, huh?"

            "I'm afraid so."

            Kenren laced his fingers together and hunched over, resting his chin against his hands.

            "OK," he said, and let his breath go explosively. "See if you can talk Goujun into it. And I'll forget we had this conversation."

            He could feel the relief in Tenpou's body.

            "Thank you."

            "You're welcome, I suppose." He got up and walked away, not looking back.

 

2.

 

            "Adjutant," Goujun said.

            "Yes."

            "Kenren's adjutant."

            "Mh."

            Blank red eyes looked at Tenpou. Tenpou gave them his wooliest smile in return. Eccentric Marshal Tenpou. Goujun leaned back, resting his elbows on the arms of his chair; made a steeple of his fingers and regarded Tenpou above his talons.

            "Why?"

            "You know I'm not really suited to a commanding position," Tenpou began.

            "No," Goujun interrupted. "I don't know that."

            "I'm too independent," Tenpou continued steadily. "Not a teamworker."

            "So?"

            "I feel I'd do better in a non-supervisory position."

            "I can remove those duties from your position, if you like. I don't understand why you want me to remove *you* from the position."

            "It's becoming a little burdensome." Tenpou was beginning to sweat. Dealing with Goujun required patience- required being nearly as patient as a dragon and able to wait a dragon out. But bringing down a stone wall by chipping at it with a chisel was hard work.

            "I take it you don't find commanding General Kenren burdensome?"

            "No. I can work with the General. He's not the problem."

            "You perform your duties well. More than well, as you know. I've no desire to replace you with someone else. And I've no desire at all to make you subordinate to General Kenren. He needs someone sitting on him, hard and always."

"To be perfectly frank, sir-- Kenren is umm highly ambivalent towards authority. Orders don't work with him. I think it'd be much easier to control him from below than from above."

"You're speaking literally?"

"I- what--" Tenpou blinked his puzzlement, then stiffened in shock as understanding came. A wave of anger hit him. He clung to his temper with both hands. "I'm afraid I don't know what you mean," he said, in a voice that felt too tight even to his own ears.

"Indeed." Goujun wasn't angry at all. Cold and white, mouth twisted as if he'd just bitten into a lemon, red eyes blank and unfeeling above it. The two of them stared at each other. It was Goujun who turned his head away first, most unusually.

"Very well. Request granted."

"Thank you."

"Keep him in line, Marshal. I never wanted him here and I only took him on in obedience to my older brother's orders. I've been aching for an excuse to boot him out, and that goes double after today."

Tenpou let anger take him a little farther than was safe. "Indeed? Now why would that be?" he asked.

"I'd never have thought you'd let the likes of Kenren lead you into such an-- unbecoming-- request as the one you just made. I owe him for that." There was an iron animosity underlying the words, like the hard frosts of Under heaven. "But I see even the best of men have their weak spots."

"And dragons have none, I suppose?" Tenpou said. "I only hope that's true."

Goujun's head went back. "Meaning?"

"Nothing," Tenpou said. No proof at all that Goujun was part of the disturbing anomaly Tenpou had long sensed happening in the upper echelons of the army. No proof, just a strong supposition that if he wasn't part of it himself, he was turning a convenient blind eye to it. Only an incompetent would be totally oblivious to what was going on in his own army, and Goujun wasn't incompetent. Which left at best, mistaken ideals; and at worst, venality---

"My regard for you is purely professional, Marshal. Rest easy on that score."

Tenpou's eyebrows rose even as he realized this wasn't the total non sequitur it sounded. "Naturally. I wasn't meaning to imply otherwise. My apologies." And I wonder if that's true, he thought, mildly stunned that Goujun would mention personal attachments at all, even if only to deny having them. He stared at the dragon king, mind dizzy with surmise.

"Accepted. You may go." Goujun looked back at him, expression closed as a book. Nothing more to be got there.

"Good day, then."

I'd give a lot to know what's going on in his head, Tenpou thought in frustration as he left Goujun's office. He would have derived no comfort from the knowledge that Goujun was thinking exactly the same thing.

 

3.

 

            "It's settled," Tenpou said. "I'm your adjutant from today on."

            "Good," Kenren said. He poured himself another cup. "So what do you see your duties as being?"

            "Ah, the usual. Keeping track of your appointments, drawing up the schedules of guard duty, reporting any infractions I see- like that."

            "Fine. Carry on then, Marshal."

            "I know this isn't easy for you--"

            "Piece of cake, what do you think?" Kenren was well into the jar by now. Tenpou frowned.

            "You were right, I'm afraid. Goujun seems to think I'm acting from tender feelings for yourself."

            "Naturally."

            "I might almost have thought-- he was jealous."

            "Hohhh. Even better. I cut out the Dragon king for a piece of your ass. Can't wait for that to get around the officer's mess."

            "Kenren."

            "S'matter? This was your idea. You live with the consequences."

            "It isn't absolutely necessary that my superior be you," Tenpou said in an edged voice. "It's the position that I want, not the personal connection. I can ask Goujun to assign me to someone else."

            "You'll never get your reputation back if you do. You go sniffing after me, we have a lovers' spat, wham you're after another guy. What are you, a field marshal or a camp follower?"

            He didn't see what happened next, only felt it. Found himself sitting on the floor, mouth bleeding from Tenpou's fist. After a minute he put a finger to his split lip and grimaced.

            "Warii," he said. "I went too far there."

            "Yes," Tenpou said, standing above him and shaking a little still. "You did. So perhaps you might stop beating round the bush and tell me what your complaint is?"

            "Complaint?" Kenren said slowly, getting to his feet. "Well, I could complain that you're jerking me around. Tell me you're going to use me and don't tell me how. I could complain that you're taking me for granted, handy dandy Kenren, rely on him to back you up in anything and no questions asked."

            Tenpou's mouth opened in surprise, but Kenren gave him no room to get a word in.

"But the fact is, what really gets my goat is that you gotta do this all yourself. Just like always- me my way and screw everyone else. Nearly got you killed the first day we met, and did you learn anything from that? Nooo, you did not."

            "I'm sorry," Tenpou said after a minute. "But that's how I am. I didn't think you minded."

            "Fifth wheel. 'I don't need you.' Now why would I mind that?"

            "I see. I hurt your pride?"

            Kenren flushed. "Asshole." His mouth went tight. "OK, Marshal. This is General Kenren speaking, your commanding officer as of today. And here's your first order- *tell me what all this is about*."

            "Ah," Tenpou said, blinking. He looked down at the desk top. "Do you have another cup available?"

            "Mh." Kenren pulled one from his capacious pocket. Tenpou took it and held it out. Kenren reached for his winejug and filled the little bowl.

            "Mh," Tenpou said, and perched on the edge of the desk. Kenren watched him a minute, then took the chair.

            "Good wine," Tenpou said, sipping.

            "Not bad," Kenren allowed, not taking his eyes from him. They drank in silence. Tenpou finished his cup and held it out for a refill. Kenren poured, and another for himself.

            "Kenren," Tenpou began, relaxing into the wine's warmth. "I have a proposition to make. A little unusual. There's something going on- I think something's going on- and I want to be able to check it out. I need to be a little less conspicuous than usual for a bit; and, yes, it might help if I were a bit more- dismissible- in everyone's mind as well." He took a reflective sip. "So here's the plan. I'd like you to take me on as your adjutant for the next while." Kenren's eyes widened fractionally. Tenpou looked straight into them. "And I'd like you not to ask anything more about it. Because the people involved, whoever they are, are bound to react to you if you're in a more prominent position, but I don't want what you do there to be influenced by my preconceptions." His mouth crooked. "Also, without offence- you aren't that good an actor. I don't think you could pretend to know nothing if you knew something. So. What about it?"

            "Mmhh," Kenren said after a minute. "I think I can handle having you as my assistant. But what do you think Goujun'll have to say?"

            "He'll blame you for debauching me. Spoiling my service record. Can you live with that?"

            "He doesn't like me anyway," Kenren shrugged. "No skin off my butt."

            "It's likely to be a long-term inconvenience, him having a grudge against you."

            "Too bad. I couldn't get into his good books if I tried, and I don't want to try. Let him think I'm screwing you. Doesn't bother me if it doesn't bother you."

            "It doesn't bother me."

            "Good. Cigarette?" Kenren pulled his pack out of the skirts of his coat.

            "Thank you. I don't mind if I do." Tenpou took one. Kenren reached up to light it for him, and his own.

            "Mhh," he said, savoring it. "Good."

            "Anhh," Tenpou agreed.

Kenren leaned back in Tenpou's swivel chair, and blew a smoke ring. "Of course, if I'm not that good an actor, maybe I should be screwing you. Just to look convincing."

            "Ha ha. Yes, possibly."

            "Henh. Yeah." Kenren laughed as well.

            Their eyes met briefly, Tenpou's blanked by the glass of his spectacles, Kenren's crinkling in a sardonic smile. Kenren grimaced ruefully and looked away. Tenpou gave a small grunt, mphh, and took another drag.

Kenren finished his cigarette. He reached a long arm to the ashtray, butted it out, and got to his feet to stand above Tenpou. Tenpou looked up at him over the top of his glasses, and his smile went away. Was replaced by that closed considering expression he sometimes wore- the one that seemed to come from very far away, from way back in the part of his skull where he did all his thinking. Kenren gave a little grin at the almost-stranger looking out of Tenpou's eyes. Hi there, you. How's about it?

"Is this your second order?" Tenpou wanted to know.

"Baaa-ka."

"Mh." Tenpou butted out his own cigarette and got to his feet.

"Here?"

"Bed'd be more comfortable."

"True." They turned and went wordlessly together into the adjoining room.

 

 

MJJ

Dec 2001- Jan 2002