"The Emperor's jubilee celebrations tomorrow," Goujun said, as if it was a chapter heading.
"Mh?" Tenpou awaited enlightenment, or at least a summary of the contents.
"You will accompany me to the reception and the banquet following."
"My brothers will be present."
"Anh--?" Now that's unusual.
"With their acting Commanders in Chief."
"Anh." And that meant Marshal Chourin, acting Commander in Chief of the Army of the East. Recently cuckolded and assaulted by Tenpou's current subaltern. To be smoothed down, probably, or at least not provoked, even if, as Kenren told it, he was a very provoking man. Tenpou reserved judgment on the matter. So was Kenren.
"You will be there in a ceremonial rather than a practical capacity," Goujun was saying.
Hmmm? " And in plain language that means...?"
"I do," Tenpou said, miffed. Kenren dumped water on him if he didn't, which was a distinct nuisance.
"More than you did, but there's room for improvement."
Tenpou eyed him reproachfully. Goujun was not in the habit of commenting on his personal hygiene.
"His Majesty the Blue Dragon, King of the Eastern Ocean, is a stickler for punctilio." Tenpou registered comprehension. Older brothers- *oldest* brothers- and a king for overweight. Clearly Goujun had his crosses to bear in the world as well.
"Understood." Get Kenren to clean my dress boots and see the uniform's spotless. And--- he eyed Goujun's expressionless face- read up on dragon etiquette.
Still, no harm in fishing a little. "All three of your brother kings in Heaven at once? That doesn't happen every day."
"My brothers prefer the work of governing their own realms." As ever, Goujun might have been saying For administrative purposes Under Heaven is divided into four zones of approximately equal size each denominated by the major points of the compass. "They feel matters here can be handled satisfactorily enough by their Marshals. Which is true. We may be a little busier than we were with these disturbances Down Below, but there's still not much real work for the army to do." That 'real' was so unaccented as to be unignorable.
Well, yes, there it was. The ancient warrior race of the Dragons predated the Buddhist rulers of Heaven. How not, being spirits of nature and of essential power, there from the start? In their time they'd been untamed and ferocious, warring on earth and in the upper heavens. Politics and expediency had led to the arrangement with the current regime, if one wanted to label something that had lasted several dozen millennia a current regime. They were now heads of the armies of Heaven, its military elite, and honoured allies of the Emperor. Defenders of the faith even, why not? But not what they had been. Allies that were closer to tributaries, and soldiers in name only. No wonder they preferred the air of their own kingdoms and the company of their own kind. Goujun himself stuck out like a sore thumb among the throngs of celestials, and not just for his milk white skin and red eyes. The pointed ears, the horns, the slight scaling of his face... he was an outsider, almost as alien as one of the youkai of Under Heaven would be if it appeared in Heaven's streets.
Goujun glanced up, as if aware of Tenpou's too intense gaze. Tenpou smiled cheerfully.
"I understand," he said. "Formal occasion, best behaviour, no ruffled feathers."
"If it can be arranged," Goujun agreed. His normally dour voice sounded no more dour than usual, but the nuance was clear enough now. However unintentionally on Heaven's part, the Dragon Kings were having their noses rubbed in their vassal status and not expected to like it. Just to bring it off with the best grace possible.
"Very good, sir." He waited for dismissal.
He raised inquiring eyebrows at his commander.
"Marshal Chourin," Goujun said.
"Yes sir. Eggshells. I'll walk very carefully."
Goujun went on looking at him. Tenpou sighed inwardly.
"I've heard the talk. And officially I haven't heard the talk. My assistant is kept with his nose to the grindstone and will in the course of eternity learn some respect, but naturally he's a very hard case. I regard him as a challenge."
The silence went on a hair longer than Tenpou cared for, and he knew Goujun knew it, but he wasn't giving any more ground than that.
"Very good, Marshal," Goujun said in dismissal. "Meet me tomorrow, fourteen hundred oh-five hours, by the entrance to the main drawing room of the palace."
Tenpou saluted with the sheaf of papers he held in his hand and took his leave. And just why does *Goujun* hang around Heaven? he wondered as he went.
Marshal Tenpou was waiting for him as he came down the corridor. Punctual, when needed. Goujun eyed him critically. Impeccable, when needed. Even the accustomed smell of cigarettes had somehow been banished. Good. He nodded at his Marshal and signalled to the guards. They opened the double doors wide. Gouen was waiting within the large room, standing gracefully and still as a statue.
"Third brother." Gouen bowed as they approached, hands clasped at forehead level.
"Gouen," Goujun acknowledged him. They kissed formally, both cheeks.
"It rejoices me to see my third brother well."
"My thanks. Yourself are in health?"
"Your worthless brother has nothing to complain of."
"That too is well. Marshal Genrou," he nodded at Gouen's subordinate, who gave him a military bow in return, fist to chest. "Gouen, I make known to you my chief commander, Marshal Tenpou."
"Your Majesty." The proper reverence for a foreign ruler, hands clasped and head bent. Good man.
"Marshal." Gouen gave him a civil nod, pleased but not about to show it. Goujun indicated the space back of him with his chin, and Tenpou went to stand there next to Genrou. Goujun and Gouen turned to face the door, composed their attitudes, and waited. Reliably on the count of five they opened again on Goushou and his marshal Housan. Goujun clasped his hands before him and bowed. The ceremonious inquiries were repeated, formal and soothing, and the introduction of his assistant. Goushou gave Tenpou a long appraising look, but his conclusions were unreadable. Aware of a slight tension in his stomach, Goujun again took up his position and counted. The doors opened a final time and the King of the Eastern Ocean swept in, his blue cape belling in the wind of his walking. The three of them dropped to one knee, left hand at the waist, right fist to the ground.
"Rise, brothers," Goukou said. His voice had the weight and heaviness of the ocean to it, hinting at immensities. More than anything else, that voice drew Goujun back to the feeling of home. The natural sphere of the dragons, the boundless oceans, the boundless air.
"Goushou, Gouen. It has been many years since we were last in Heaven together." They exchanged salutations. "Goujun, we are glad to see you well after such a time." Goujun took both the high king's hands and laid them to his forehead, bending low.
"Ani-ue," he said. "Forgive your worthless brother his long absence and neglect."
"We have missed your face in our halls." Goukou raised him and kissed him on either cheek, not loosing his hands. "Your western ocean is lonely for its king." Goujun bowed his head to the mild reproach and stepped to the side. Goushou turned to the row of kneeling Marshals behind them. "Gentlemen, rise," he said, and the three scrambled to their feet.
Goukou nodded to them, his bearing become indefinably more military. "Housan, isn't it? And Genrou. Good to see you again. Goujun, this would be-?"
"My chief Marshal, Tenpou." And Tenpou- oh very well done- gave him a deep military reverence, just a hair short of the one reserved for the Emperor. Tenpou was far more sensitive to nuance than the run of tone-deaf Celestials, who seemed to need everything spelled out for them in irritating detail. One could allow him his eccentricities in minor points just because he was so reliable in the major ones.
"Ahh," Goukou took his Marshal in with a comprehensive glance. "Marshal Tenpou, greetings. Now these," he said with interest, indicating Tenpou's glasses. "I've seen one or two of you people wearing them but I've never understood what they're for."
"They adjust the focus of our eyes when, for whatever reason, the eye is incapable of doing that itself. Without them," Tenpou took his glasses off and looked up, dark eyes gone huge, "as Your Majesty may see, my eyes are unfocussed. The world is as blurred to me as it would be to an ordinary man looking through these lenses."
"Ah?" Goukou reached a hand out and took the glasses. Brought them up to his own eyes and started back. "Indeed. Is this a common affliction among gods?"
"Only those who ruin their eyes with reading." That was Chourin, sour-faced a pace to the rear of Goukou.
"My bad habit," Tenpou smiled deprecatingly.
"I see." Goukou returned the glasses, giving him a look. "A pity." Goujun caught his breath minutely, but Tenpou replaced his glasses unmoved. Maybe he hadn't registered what pity his brother thought it was. In which case, Chourin certainly hadn't, which was as well. But not helped by Goukou's next words.
"Oh yes. Goujun. That trouble-maker Chourin had on his hands a while back-- the one we sent over to your army- what was his name, Chourin?" when Chourin failed to register the questioning pause.
"Kenren," Chourin snarled.
"Just so. I trust you sorted him out?"
"I placed him under Marshal Tenpou's direct command. I trusted he would sort him out." The heat of Chourin's baleful glance at Tenpou was almost palpable. Goushou raised a chin in slight surprise, Gouen's eyebrows twitched.
"I'm sorting him," Tenpou said. "He began by cleaning my office and has moved on to polishing my boots. Now we're having a stint of washing the mess' ashtrays."
"And you think that's improved his attitude?" That was Chourin, speaking out of turn of course, but for the moment they'd pretend that military rules applied. Tenpou gave a small bow in Goukou's direction, tacitly requesting permission to speak even as he spoke.
"He'll learn manners sometime in the course of eternity. Of course he's a very hard case. I regard him as a challenge."
"Very good," Goukou smiled. At that moment the doors opened and an attaché came in.
"Your Majesties, the banquet is about to begin. If I may request you to come this way...?"
They turned. Goukou with Chourin at his back took the head. Goushou signalled to the distracted Housan and followed him. Goujun, moving into place with Tenpou neatly falling in behind him, caught the little flicker of Gouen's eyes as they passed. Third brother, how do you put up with this? The corner of Goujun's mouth grimaced flat. You do what's necessary, Gouen. You know that one by now.
The dragon kings shone like jewels. Tenpou was utterly entranced. Goukou, the oldest and naturally the most imposing, had a bluish sheen to his skin like a pearl. His hair was blue as shadows on snow, like one of the gods of Tenjikukoku. The eyes- the red eyes that all dragons had- were hard to read, but his features were open and handsome. Quiet Goushou was ruddy-skinned, like the reflection of a fire on a wall. The rest of him was dark red, hair and eyes and robes, like a flame given body. You expected him to radiate warmth. Maybe that was why his expression looked kind beneath the thoughtfulness, or as kind as the unfamiliar features could be. Gouen the youngest, a little taller than the middle brothers, was the contrast. Black hair, black robes, skin like dark ash. With his red eyes he looked like one of the Buddhist guardians of hell, and it was evident, in the way the ranked courtiers they passed drew themselves back in alarm or whispered behind their hands, that that was the idea in most people's minds. Idiots, not to see the cleverness and humour in the corners of his mouth. King of the northern ocean, charged with the northern quadrant of Under Heaven that produced some of the most interesting societies Down There. Tenpou fretted, aching to get Gouen alone to start a conversation with him, and only too aware that he wasn't likely to have that chance. The formality of the occasion aside, the formality of the dragons when together was much more of an obstacle than he had imagined.
Even Goujun seemed somehow altered in their company. Tenpou darted a glance in his direction as they walked through the thronged hallways. Steady unmoving Goujun, his by-the-book commanding officer, took on a different dimension when in the company of his own kind. Almost barbaric, you might say. Funny that he'd never noticed... the long braided hair, the beast claws at his shoulders, the sword at his belt- reminders of an older and wilder heritage. A question teased Tenpou's mind. The dragons were indeed like the youkai in physiognomy. Youkai were indefinably larger and coarser, of course, and dragons came in colours which, to the best of Tenpou's knowledge, youkai didn't. But could there be some connection between dragons and youkai, or was it as coincidental as the common form shared by kami and humans? He searched his memory for what he knew of the origins of youkai, and realized he didn't know. There was a passage he'd read somewhere once- a chronicle, wasn't it- he could half-see see the writing in his mind's eye, it was one of the scrolls he kept on the left-hand bookcase--
Oh yes. He pulled himself back to duty. They'd entered the upper hallway of the banquet chamber, looking down on the high table and the seating for the celestials below. Nicely calculated to express the Dragon kings' position- at the main feast but apart from it. A semi-circular table with four chairs faced over the railing. Goukou took the end position, towards the Emperor's dais, and the others in their places. Their Marshals stood behind them at attention. It was clear from Chourin's fidgeting and Housan's impatient sighs that the arrangement didn't meet with their satisfaction. Genrou on Tenpou's right stood in sullen gloom. Well, in the ordinary way of things, these were the biggest of the army big noises, and to be kept standing like this wasn't what they were used to.
In the gallery opposite them were ranged the five Bodhisattvas, not looking immensely happy either. Of course, perfect enlightenment and absolute detachment had a way of manifesting as diffuse disapproval of almost everything. The rulers of the universe always seemed to be sniffing a bad smell when you saw them in public. Except for Kanzeon, of course. Se had a... quite stunning red velvet number on, low in the bosom, naturally, that exactly matched hir current shade of lipstick. Se was perusing the throngs in the court below with the help of a pair of pearl-handled opera glasses. The bodhisattva's lively attachment to the current scene was unorthodox for one of that rank, but very welcome- for one of that rank. Tenpou watched the long-suffering Jiroushin being treated to a steady commentary of some description, accompanied by the occasional pointing red fingernail. Fashion or scandal, which? he wondered. The thronged kami didn't look likely to provide many examples of either, though doubtless there was more scandal to be had than fashion. Well, he thought grimly, like myself. Just at that moment Kanzeon caught sight of him and waved.
"Yaa, Tenpou!" se called. Tenpou bowed courteously. And of course se could see Chourin standing there glaring. Se grinned at him but to Tenpou's intense and secret relief did no more. Hir eye ran across the dragon brothers and se gave Goukou a friendly nod in passing, casual enough that the high king had only to nod back.
"Not much change there," Goukou remarked.
"Heaven doesn't change," Goujun said. "And Kanzeon Bousatsu is effectively a law unto hirself."
"Heaven doesn't change, no," Goukou nodded. "Though we've often wondered about the bodhisattva's ummm personal style. Has it any meaning, would you think?"
"Meaning?" Goujun shrugged. "Only that the bodhisattva is an eccentric-- Tenpou?" catching his little movement.
"With respect, sir, your Majesties- it would appear the bodhisattva is somewhat influenced by the fashions in dress Down There, which change almost yearly." There were snorts of disbelief from the marshals beside him and dubious looks from the dragons. "Hard as it is to imagine, the humans concern themselves very much with the newest fashions- what's being worn and what's passé- 'this year.' There's a journal called ummm Vogue which the bodhisattva has asked this person to obtain for hir on his visits below. In his humble observation, the bodhisattva's wardrobe changes each time a new issue comes out."
"The bodhisattva governs the mortal world. Naturally se has a tender sympathy for the interests of hir subjects," Chourin said briskly.
"Of course," Goukou nodded. "Mercy and compassion, isn't it? Most commendable." Gouen's mouth flickered in the briefest indication of a smile. Genrou behind his chair said "Ah. The royal party is approaching." The trumpets sounded below, possibly a hair late. The dragons rose to their feet as if they had only one body, to stand in the same graceful and formal pose they had adopted in the drawing room to await their brothers' arrival. Tenpou sighed at the beauty of it, and sighed differently at the effect it conveyed- unintentionally, no doubt- of making himself and his fellow marshals look like clodhopping farmers. He drew himself erect so as to look his best, and carefully withdrew his mind from the speeches, toasts, and slow-paced protocol that was about to begin. It would be hours before he was back in his own study, but with a little concentration... he might remember... what was it that scroll had said about youkai?
A steady succession of dignitaries had spoken for nearly an hour, recalling the events of the Emperor's lengthy reign in fulsome and tedious detail. The tediousness wasn't helped by the fact that very little had happened in the emperor's reign, and so the speakers were reduced to generalizations. Goujun sat with a face of polite attention, as did his brother dragons. That their minds were elsewhere, and miles away, was something that very few kami were likely to know.
Meditation was a dragonish pastime, meant to rest the mind during long flights, but so pleasant in itself that dragons would sometimes do it for decades, and occasionally centuries. Goujun was relaxing now in the sense of his three brothers' presence near him again. The music of their existence sounded through his reverie, as it had through the countless ages of his youth. The steady background of Goukou, like the weight of the sea in its bound immensity. The ground of their existence, solid and there. Goukou kept them fixed to the earth, himself and his brothers, and gave them a point of reference to judge by when they took to the heavens. Home. Home was the place where Goukou was, so that even when away from him they still had a fixed pole to steer by and towards.
Against that huge melody was the counterpoint of Goushou, something lighter and flickering and warmer. More immediate and more knowable than Goukou, more kindly perhaps, but also less secure. Goushou could blaze up at times for no reason, would disappear to go his own ways from some obscure restlessness. Goukou never reproached him for it that Goujun knew of. He would counsel Goujun to leave the second eldest be and not add to his troubles.
Himself he sang a single note in his soul, direct and clear. It joined the melody of Goukou, but played against the irregularities of Goushou. He never disobeyed his oldest brother, but he would push sometimes against Goushou as if from a kind of natural opposition, a wish for Goushou to be more focussed and present. His rebellion never went far before Goukou intervened to cut it short, and Goujun always bowed his head and acquiesced.
And then, after a while, there had been a fourth, dark Gouen, quiet and purposeful as the rain. A younger brother to look after and be responsible for, someone who looked up to him instead of down. Gouen's personality was changeable- forthright and open with Goukou but subdued and inward-turning with Goushou. With Goujun he harmonized always, simply and naturally, the little brother modelling himself on the older one. Only in later years had Goujun realized that Gouen deliberately changed his behaviour to accommodate the others' natures, and that his younger brother had his own quiet personality and determination. Goujun could smile at his earlier notions of what Gouen was like. He'd been an adolescent, thinking himself the centre of the world, or of someone's world. The truth was that he was only one of four, four lines of music that played together, struck harmonies here and there, but then went off to pursue their own melodies.
He listened to the harmony now, complete after such a long time, as the voices below droned on. Somehow he couldn't cut the voices off wholly. They wouldn't go. It was annoying but inevitable, he supposed. Such was Heaven. Meanwhile the rest of him was sailing a large universe, a world full and happy again. Saw images at times, worlds he knew, walked corridors of the palace of the western ocean. Saw his brothers here and there in the past- Goukou frowning once from his early childhood and himself standing uneasily in front of him, whatever minor infraction that had been; saw Goushou passing along a corridor across an open garden as he passed on the other side; saw Gouen approaching in his black robes, only it wasn't Gouen, it was one of the army of Heaven with Tenpou beside him-- Goujun stopped to look at the memory how odd now why-- the soldier had an arm about Tenpou's neck and was laughing at something, drunk maybe? And then he saw in distaste that it was Kenren, walking in that familiar fashion with his own officer--
"Sir?" A quiet and tentative voice in his ear, a very tentative touch on his shoulder. "Sir? The Emperor is finishing up..." He brought himself back, knowing it would bring the others back as well if, indeed, they'd been as far away as himself. He watched his eyes clear on the scene of Heaven as the Emperor sat down in his throne again. The four dragon kings of the oceans began to applaud just as everyone else did.
How? Goushou's eye flicked the question at him. He nodded his head minutely backwards where Tenpou was standing. Goushou's eyebrows rose a fraction before he looked away.
Then the banquet to follow. Their marshals were escorted to a table on the other side of the gallery, doubtless to their relief, and servants began to bring in trays of food.
"The Emperor keeps a good cook," Goukou observed.
"The Emperor keeps a good cook," Goujun said.
"The numbers, no doubt." Gouen put down the bowl of lukewarm soup he'd been tasting. "Several thousand people to feed..."
"And vegetarian." Goushou had eaten just enough for courtesy and was now sipping his wine.
"Anh," Goujun agreed. "It's been a long time since I've had game or fowl. I begin to miss it."
"You could come back," Goushou said.
"It's hard to make the time. Things are happening Down There just now- an unusual number of incidents. I wonder if the youkai aren't up to something amongst themselves. You wouldn't have heard anything?"
"Up to something?" Goukou said dubiously. "Like what?"
"I've no idea. The number of youkai beasts seems to be increasing for no apparent reason. There shouldn't be that many naturally, unless someone was breeding them."
"Breeding them?" Goushou blinked. "I can't think why even a youkai would do that. They're ferocious."
"Maybe something in their environment. There's no toushin now, I believe?" Gouen said.
"Mh. And hasn't been for quite some time."
"There you are." Goukou shrugged. "No-one kills them, and they breed in greater numbers."
"Yes. A problem." Goujun looked down at his indifferent supper and reached for the wine again.
"Goujun." Goujun looked up in surprise at his oldest brother's tone. "Is this any way for the king of the western ocean to be spending his days? Worrying about the number of demon beasts Down Below?"
He had nothing to say to that. "It's part of my work as commander of the army of the west."
"And do you intend to spend the rest of your days as commander of the army of the west? You've done Heaven's work long enough. Be free of it. That Marshal of yours has brains and talent- far more than our Chourin does. You can safely entrust the western army to him and devote yourself to matters more worthy of your attention."
"I grant you Marshal Tenpou's ability..." he considered the best way to phrase it, and realized with relief that when he was talking to his brothers the circumlocutions of Heaven were unnecessary. He could speak the simple truth. "Tenpou is a dangerous man. He's not to be trusted out of my sight. There's truly no saying what he might do."
"If he threatens your position, he can be taken care of."
"He doesn't threaten me." He amended that, for honesty's sake. "I don't think he threatens me. I don't even know who it is he threatens, if anyone. But he's a totally unknown quantity, like a strange beast. Like those beings the gods call itan. It's different, and we don't know what the difference is, but difference itself is dangerous."
"You've been too long in Heaven. I mean no offence, third brother, but you begin to think like a kami." Goujun winced. That hurt, the more so because he was afraid it was true. "Let my third brother return for a spell to his western ocean," Gouen's voice went on, soft and determined as rain from a grey sky. "The air is clearer in our world. And in our true forms it's easier to see the truth of things. How long has it been since you flew the skies, third brother?"
"Too long," Goujun said. His mind was still full of memory, of the great blue vaults of the heavens, the clouds like cliffs, the immensities of the plunges and heights- falling through the cold thin air, twisting and darting and seeing his long white body coiling and rippling behind him, and his mane covered with ice crystals as it streamed about his head. His mane... Unthinkingly his hand caught and pulled at the long braid of his manform hair. Bound in place, as he himself was. Bound by what? he wondered, for perhaps the first time in his life. I am the dragon king of the western ocean, not Heaven's servant.
"This is no fit place for us," Goushou said in his warm voice.
"But you need me here," Goujun objected. "If only as a hostage of sorts. With all four of us away... you know how he--" he checked himself, almost betrayed into indiscretion by the security of talking to his own kind and kin. "Heaven is very careful of its power," he rephrased.
"Indeed, the present regime is very careful of its power," Gouen's soft rain voice said. Goujun went cold to his vitals. "A stagnant bureaucracy, dead wood overgrowing this place... Naturally, what else do they do but cling to their little patches of power? Once there is some new blood in the system all that will change, and I hear the new blood is already working its way into positions of influence."
The gentle voice went on, steady and relentless, calmly covering the stark jagged point as if it wasn't there, as if it was just a trick of the eye. The present regime. As if there could be another. Goujun looked expressionlessly over at his oldest brother, who looked impassively back. The bureaucracy, we're only talking about the bureaucracy, and everyone knows the bureaucracy is overdue for reform.
Gouen could be talking about the bureaucracy if Goujun wanted it that way. And if he did, he would be setting himself apart from his brothers in a way that had never happened in the long history of dragonhood. In a way that couldn't happen, not if the world was as the world should be. He should be agreeing, gravely, that the bureaucracy needed change, and the sooner the better, with the little tone that said I understand what you say and I agree. They were waiting for that. What he couldn't understand- what he needed time to sit and think and try to make himself understand- was why he even hesitated to do it. He turned his head away, saw Tenpou seated a little apart from where the other marshals were huddled together in conversation, and looked away again. There was no answer there. I owe Heaven nothing. We owe Heaven nothing. Why do I hesitate?
There was something odd in his brothers' silence. Then he heard Goushou's sigh. Looked up in surprise and met Goukou's shuttered expression.
"Blood will tell," Goukou said. "But we would never have thought it would tell in you."
Goukou raised an ironic eyebrow. His eyes flicked briefly in Tenpou's direction, but Tenpou wasn't even within earshot. He couldn't hear any of this. Goukou started to frown, as though annoyed by something- annoyed by him.
"He's beautiful enough, but he's a kami, Goujun." Distaste moved beneath his words. What was this? If the high king had a sudden fancy for his Marshal, Goujun was the one to be registering distaste.
"Your brother is aware that he's a kami," he said, straightening and making the respect in his tone sound a warning. Do not forget who and what you are, oldest brother, not for the likes of that.
"Then what on earth do you think you're doing?" Goukou said flatly.
It was like a torrent of cold water. Him. They thought that he-- He blinked in shock. "That's not true," he said automatically. Goukou only looked at him, stone-faced. "Ani-ue--" He turned to Goushou for help, but his expression was closed and reproachful. Looked at Gouen, who kept his face averted. "It's not," he said again.
"Very well, if you deny it," Goukou said, shrugging.
They didn't believe him. They thought that he- he, Goujun, the king of the western ocean- was one of- one like their ancestors, with that perverse taste for undragon flesh. He- Goujun. It was ridiculous. It was impossible. It was--
"Ani-ue. Listen to me, please. It's not true."
"I told you that I accept what you say," Goukou answered heavily. "Do you give me the lie, Goujun?"
"It's you who are calling me a liar!"
"Goujun," Goushou intervened sharply. "You speak to your brother and your King."
"Then let my brother and my King believe me. And you too, second brother- Gouen--"
"I'm afraid that isn't easy, third Brother." Gouen was looking at the chopstick between his fingers, not at him. "What else would make you act like this?"
Goujun's hand struck the table in outrage. Fury choked his throat, but under it was something that felt close to fear. The universe was all wrong. This couldn't be happening- himself and his brothers at odds, over a stupid misunderstanding like...
We're at odds already, the cold voice in his mind told him. Not over Tenpou. Over something else, and you don't even know what it is. You're no longer one in heart with them. Goukou and Goushou were watching him, their eyes glowing with anger. He lowered his shoulders and took his hands from the table. I don't know that that's true. I need *time*... I need to *think*.
"Ani-ue, second brother," he said, not looking at them. "Your worthless younger brother begs forgiveness. I spoke too roundly. Gouen, your pardon. I am-- not myself today."
"We do not blame you," Goukou said. "Things happen to us when we fall out of the paths proper to our nature. That was why the three of us withdrew from Heaven. To remember who we are."
Goushou spoke beside him. "The universe goes in cycles, Goujun. Where you are in this present cycle it seems it would be best for you to put some distance between yourself and these kami. Best for you and for them."
Gouen finally looked up at him, eyes narrow in his dark face. "You've been here too long, Third Brother. It's time to come home."
"Yes," Goujun said. "Maybe I have. Maybe it is indeed."
The dinner was nothing to write home about. Cold where it should have been hot and lukewarm where it should have been cold. Tenpou looked at the room temperature deep-fried mushroom between his chopsticks and took a resigned bite. Not much different from food in the mess, really.
"So, Tenpou, I hear your army's been busy lately," Housan said.
"Mhh," Tenpou agreed. "Yours too, I understand."
"These beasts," Housan grumbled. "They just keep coming. Pity we can't put an end to them once and for all."
"Nonviolence is the cardinal principle of Heaven," Chourin said repressively.
"Yeah but the beasts are down on earth," Housan countered.
"Now that's a thought," Tenpou said. "There's no ban on killing among the inhabitants Down There, and we don't even try to stop the youkai wars--"
"Youkai wars can't be stopped," Genrou said. "Youkai are animals themselves."
"I'm not sure that's true in light of their history-- though speaking of which, do any of you gentlemen recall what the origin of youkai is?"
The other three looked blank. "Youkai are youkai," Chourin said. "They got made along with everything else in the Beginning Days."
"I'm almost certain that's not true. There's an account, written by a youkai himself of course, that says they come from, if I'm recalling this correctly, 'a more ancient and noble stock than humans and therefore it's natural that youkai have dominion over them.'"
"That's what a youkai would say," Genrou snorted. "They're animals, just a bit more evolved."
"They use magic," Tenpou objected.
"So do foxes and tanuki," Genrou countered.
"Ahh," Tenpou said, struck. "Magical beasts. Could they be, I wonder?"
"None of us are up on the animals of Down There," Chourin said in impatience. "Ask at the Academy if you want to know."
"Yes, of course. But if it's basically a case of beast fighting beast, why don't we arm the youkai so that they can deal with the animals themselves? Permanently," he added.
There was a small silence as the other three digested that.
"The army of Heaven is charged with keeping the peace below," Chourin objected automatically.
"But why? Youkai beasts don't threaten Heaven directly--"
"Give the youkai arms strong enough to kill beasts like that and the youkai will start threatening Heaven."
"The how doesn't matter," Housan said. "The fact is it's the army's job to look after Down There. It's about the only job we have. Without that we might as well all retire."
"What you're saying is that we need Down There more than it needs us," Tenpou argued. "Which is true."
"The army is essential!" Chourin said loudly.
"For what? There's no real need for an army in heaven. Nothing ever happens up here, for a start."
"We're needed in case anything does happen."
"Such as?" Tenpou persisted, only for the sake of keeping the argument going. Probably he should back off before Chourin became seriously annoyed, but this occasion was grinding him down with its monotony.
"Unrest in Heaven- dissatisfaction- anything could lead to a revolt-"
"A revolt--" Tenpou began, as Genrou said at the same time, "Marshal Chourin." Chourin gave him a surprised look and fell silent.
"Tenpou," Genrou said in a lower voice. "Use your head." He nodded minutely at the table across the way. "Who are the oldest enemies of Heaven? Who is it we've never really been able to trust?"
"The dragons? You think they're... planning something?"
"We think it a very strong possibility."
"But then why..." Housan began in outrage.
"Why does Heaven permit them to abandon their duties and return to their realms, where they may be raising dragon armies against us? You've heard the saying they have Down There about enough rope?"
"Yes," Tenpou said, as Housan said, "No."
"We give them enough rope to hang themselves. They think we suspect nothing- they think we're reassured by the fact that Goujun remains here- but we have our agents planted there. We'll be ready to move if we have to. And meanwhile we have the armies back under our own control and loyal to us."
"I see," Tenpou said slowly. "Tell me. Is Goujun implicated in this... plot?"
"No," Genrou said. "He's clean. But if his brothers raise a rebellion against us, we can't expect him to be on our side. That's why the army of the west is being given most of the work Down Below. The other armies need to stay intact and ready. I'm sorry, Tenpou, but that's how it is." Tenpou nodded.
"This all goes no further than here, of course," Chourin said.
"Of course," Housan said.
"That includes your subaltern, Tenpou," Chourin said heavily. "You're to tell no-one."
"Naturally," Tenpou said. He smiled. "This does rather change the view of things, doesn't it?"
"Yes," Genrou said, watching him. "But you can leave this affair to us. We've had wind of it long ago. And for now let's drop the subject. This place is too open."
"Indeed," Chourin said. "Pass the wine, Housan. This food isn't edible."
"Don't you think you've had enough, Marshal?" Genrou said.
"No dammit, I haven't had enough. Don't nursemaid me, Genrou." Chourin glared at him and poured himself a cup.
Genrou gave Tenpou a sardonic glance and a shrug.
"Now what was that about Kanzeon Bousatsu, Tenpou? These dresses of hirs from Down Below..."
"Well, they're not always dresses," Tenpou said carefully. "Perhaps you recall the last Accomplishment of Three Thousand Cycles? Se was wearing silver lame trousers and a top of pink feathers- ostrich, were they? Or osprey? Well, that style I believe is affected by certain musicians- male, for the record- in the eastern quadrant Down There..." He prattled on, while his mind reflected on Marshal Genrou's skills at extempore fictionalizing. It was a nice story, and a plausible one, but Genrou hadn't learned that the first rule of lying is restraint. Too many details too quickly is always a sign of something wrong. So how much of this was truth- because Genrou was certainly clever enough to mix some truth in with the lies. And what had Chourin been going to say that Tenpou and Housan weren't supposed to hear?
Finally over. They watched the emperor withdraw, and the line of dignitaries behind him, and finally were able to leave the gallery.
"Brothers," Goukou said when they were out in the open. "Let us be going." Goushou and Gouen nodded.
"We will see you off," Chourin began, but Goukou raised a hand in negation.
"Your day has been long enough, gentlemen. We won't impose on your services further. A pleasure to see you again." It was dismissal. The marshals bowed. Goujun, watching, wondered briefly why Housan seemed so ill at ease. 'Needs to pee, probably,' he thought, and forgot him. A kami. The affairs of the kami didn't matter any more. Tenpou looked as if he was expecting instructions from him. Goujun waved him away and walked past him without a glance.
He accompanied his older brothers to the palace terrace to bid them farewell. Goukou said the formal words of parting to him, then gave him a brief and totally unexpected hug that shook him to his core. Goushou put both hands on his shoulders as they kissed good-bye. "We will see you soon," he said in Goujun's ear. "There will be four of us again." Goujun felt his heart constrict. He turned to Gouen.
"Farewell for now, third brother," Gouen said, as he kissed Goujun's cheek. "Our ani-ue is right. Let Heaven go its own course. It has nothing to do with us."
"Yes," Goujun said, and kissed him back.
He watched them from sight. Home. He was going home. He began the long walk to his quarters, through the sunset palace. The celestials hurried about him, foolish and small, and nothing to do with himself any more. His mind was back in that world that his brothers' voices had called up in him. Blue sky going on forever, full of clouds as white as himself, himself sailing through the clouds as free and purposeful as they. The vastness of the ocean, never still, alive in its movements, alive in its moods, calm and sliding in the sun or lashed to violent frenzy by the winds. A world bigger, larger, freer than this narrow little cave. A world of order and formality, like the cadences of the dragon tongue itself, that were matched to the pulse of blood through a dragon's long body, the beat of his wings through the air, and the swift plunge into the sea as it fell on its prey. He began to smile as the memory of that wordless world filled his brain with its own tremendous language.
At some point he realized he was no longer alone. His eyes shifted over, abstracted, drawn back from the vision of the sun-split cloud world to peer for an instant into the narrow crack of the present. The black uniform of Heaven, light glancing off glass- his Marshal, Tenpou. He smiled wider, caught the little flicker of-- surprise, unease, whatever it was, from the kami, and looked away. Tenpou had proved his usefulness. Tenpou had become, however unwittingly, his key out of the prison of Heaven. It was almost funny. He would have laughed, but dragon laughter could shake the foundations of the earth. Let him wait until he had space to laugh in, and then he would blow the clouds from his path with his amusement. Would sport in his true form in the seas of the sky, bat the silly shoals of birds from his path like so many minnows, catch them in his claws and crunch them between his teeth. Like minnows, but he was seeing something white and small instead, naked of feather or fin, small and mewling in his grasp. Hunting, it had been a long time since he'd gone hunting, alone or with his kind. There was that to look forward to, the chase and the kill-
His quarters. He stepped inside and through his office into the inner rooms.
"Sir." The voice stopped him. He turned his head. The kami was still there.
"Sir, could I have a word with you? I think it's important."
Tenpou. His brothers thought he was copulating with Tenpou. It was very funny, but he was also a little angry at Tenpou for giving his brother kings that insane idea. He wasn't being fair, of course. It wasn't Tenpou's fault for having a face that drew even the High King's attention. It wasn't Tenpou's fault for being one of the puny and disregardable minnows of Heaven. Tenpou had always served him well, he knew that, even though the details of his service were gone now like a dream on waking, along with the other thousand pettinesses of this place, this grave, this coffin he'd lived in for too long.
"Go," he said.
Tenpou blinked at him. Silly little kami. "Uhh- no," Tenpou said. "I don't think so."
No? The man was mad, and the man irritated him. Small naked white powerless little animal, writhing between his claws, blood red on his own white scales.
"You do not say No to the dragon king of the western ocean," Goujun told him. He took off his gloves and flexed his talons. Ripped the binding from his hair and shook his mane loose from its braid. Myself, I am myself again. And this silly little godling doesn't even understand that.
"Go," he said again, moving past him into his bedroom. "I do not guarantee your safety if you stay past this moment."
Tenpou didn't move. Slowly Goujun turned back to him. Now he remembered. There was treason in this place. The kami were plotting revolt amongst themselves. Perhaps they thought he was part of the regime they wanted to bring down, and here was Tenpou come to try conclusions with him. What a very funny idea. To think of Goujun as part of Heaven's government, to think Tenpou alone could match Goujun. He smiled in delight, but Tenpou wasn't smiling. Tenpou was looking at him through those bits of glass he hid behind. How... strange. How very strange. Goujun seemed to be looking into one of the ocean's trenches, cold and deep and dark. Fathomless. Who would have thought a kami would have such depths to him? Goujun reached and plucked the things away from its face, the better to see. Oh, and he saw. Black as the winter wind, the feel of Tenpou's soul, black and iron and unmoving as the roots of a mountain. The sea moved and the sky moved and dragons moved in both, but Tenpou did not move. Iron purpose there, inside that... small weak naked white body.
Prey, Goujun thought. You are my prey. How wonderful to hunt a beast that thinks. He met Tenpou's naked eyes. Tenpou's look at him said You really think you can?
He didn't remember much after that. The hunt was all movement and body-thought, instinct rather then brain. His prey fought him, and fought him with craft, but he was by far the stronger and strength won in the end. He could have knocked it unconscious early on, but the kami deserved better of him than that. He gave it its due. It was awake and aware when he pinned it at last beneath him, naked and soft and white and gasping in pain or exhaustion, and it knew completely what was happening when he made it part of himself. And then he rolled on his back, among the white clouds of his western paradise, and slept.
He woke at last. Looked for a long time at the ceiling above his bed, listening to the breathing of the body beside him. After a while he sat up. There was blood on him, dried now and flaking. He went to the bathroom and washed, made his clothing decent, and then brought a wet towel and what medication he could find back to the bed. Tenpou was lying on his face, asleep or unconscious. Goujun parted his buttocks and laid the cloth between them. Tenpou grunted and jerked. Goujun put his other arm on the Marshal's back as he started to twist over.
"Lie still." There was blood, a fair amount of it, dried down to the top of Tenpou's leg. He washed it away as Tenpou went on grunting into the pillow. He took a scoop of salve and smoothed it into the narrow space.
"That hurts," Tenpou told him in a muffled voice. "Your claws."
"I'm using my knuckle."
"There." Goujun wiped his hand on a clean portion of the towel. Tenpou moved carefully onto his side, squinting furiously. Goujun found his glasses on the floor and handed them over. Tenpou put them on and looked at him, and there was no reading his face at all.
"I warned you," Goujun said. He was certain that was true, though it all looked different in memory than it had at the time. "You ignored my warning."
"Mh, yes. I did, didn't I?"
"Why? What did you think to gain by it?"
"Gain? Experience, I suppose." There was something hidden in Tenpou's voice that he couldn't divine. He was telling the truth, it appeared, but certainly not the whole truth.
"Experience?" Goujun asked. "Or something more useful than that?"
"Hm?" Tenpou sounded confused. Oddly, that too seemed genuine. "What does that mean?" he asked, shifting as if uncomfortable.
"What do you think?"
"I don't know," he said. "I'm not a dragon. Your thinking-- your customs, they're-- more different than we-- than I'd imagined." An unplaceable unease rose from him, almost a desperation, unlike anything Goujun had ever sensed in him before. Goujun had never known him afraid, but could he be afraid of Goujun now? In the game these kami were playing, did Goujun threaten him somehow? Or was this only the pain of what Goujun had done to him last night? None of those felt like the right answer. He considered what he knew of Tenpou and suddenly realized what it was. He picked the marshal's uniform up off the floor, rummaged in its pockets, and threw the cigarettes and lighter onto the bed.
"Is it really alright?" Tenpou asked even as he scrabbled one frantically from the package.
"If you keep the ashes off the sheets. There are no ashtrays here."
"Thank you." Tenpou inhaled deeply and relaxed, the relief in him palpable.
"Why do you choose to be bound by those things?" Goujun said. He got his summer dressing gown from the chest. They were much of a size. He tossed it to his Marshal. "They smell."
"Ahh. The experience is worth the addiction, actually." Tenpou smiled, himself again, as he pulled the wrap on. "That first cigarette- nothing's like it."
Ordinary Tenpou, daylight Tenpou. Last night could have been a dream. But then- ordinary Goujun. Daylight Goujun. Who knew last night had happened.
"I will apologize," Goujun said, "for using you as I did. I thought you'd have the sense to do as you were told, but I forgot- I was in no condition to remember- how rash you can be. You need to reform that habit, Marshal."
To his surprise Tenpou gave him a smile of the utmost sweetness. "Yes sir. So I've been told. My apologies to yourself."
"So why did you disobey me?"
"Reasons-" He stopped. Scratched his cheek. "Nothing ever changes in Heaven. I don't know how it looks to a dragon, but to us... They have a saying Down Below, 'dead of boredom.' Something new, something outside my experience- I'm afraid I have a hard time resisting that. I guess I wanted to see what it was."
A very Tenpouish rigmarole, its meaning known only to Tenpou. Time to take the advantage of this game out of the kami's hands.
"I will be leaving Heaven shortly and returning to the western ocean." Tenpou's eyebrows went up. "You will act for me here. Naturally you will be raised to the rank of acting Commander in Chief, equal to the other three."
Tenpou looked blank. "How long will you be away?"
"For good." Now you've heard what you want to hear, what will you do?
"Commander-" Tenpou sat up abruptly and then winced at the movement. "Sir," he said, getting his expression under control. "I am fully sensible of the honour my commander proposes to bestow on his unworthy subordinate and grateful for this expression of your confidence in my poor abilities..." the easy spate of formalities faltered and stopped. "But I must ask to be allowed to refuse," Tenpou finished.
"Refuse." And there it was again, only for a moment this time, but there now he knew to look for it. That dark determined look Tenpou had worn last night. The face of the almost-itan that lived beneath the surface of his efficient eccentric marshal. And what if he spoke to that person directly, now he was himself again? Himself again... No. Too much was at stake for that gamble. They had to play the game by the rules.
"My studies, my research. The duties of a deputy commander in chief would take up all my time-" He stopped, silenced no doubt by Goujun's bleak expression. The silence stretched on. Goujun waited. "Sir, request permission to presume on our relationship."
He kept himself from gasping, just. "Granted," he said, before he could think better of it.
Tenpou looked at the cigarette in his hand and carefully butted it out against the cigarette box. "You've got your reasons for wanting to leave," he said, eyes on his task. "I begin to think, now, that I wouldn't understand them even if you told me, so--" He shrugged. "But I would ask you, Commander-" he put the cigarettes on the bedside table- "no, actually, I'd beg you, and I'll do it on my knees if you want me to- to reconsider. Don't go."
"There's something wrong here. I don't know what, but something's just... wrong. And I think- without offence- it may have something to do with your brothers' absence, with them not being here to stop it, or deter it, or whatever."
And was that as genuine as it sounded, as genuine as he wanted to believe it was? Or was it the cleverest bit of acting Goujun had ever met in his life? Heaven. He was so very weary of Heaven, where there was no-one to be trusted, even the one you most wanted to trust. At home- it was all so much simpler at home.
"Bravo," he said, dryly.
"Let me give you an hypothesis," he said, sitting down on the bed. "Let us say there is a group of ambitious and untrustworthy men somewhere in Heaven. Let us say they want something for themselves. Power, no doubt, and how can you have power here without the army? But the command of the army is in the hands of foreigners- men who find Heaven's power like a child's toy compared to what they have in their own kingdoms, and who therefore aren't blinded by the need for it. Those men are a hindrance. They can't be bought or suborned. They want nothing that these ambitious men can give them. But they have a weak spot. They're foreigners. They have no love of this place. They would rather be in their own country. Times are stable, there's nothing to be done, their subordinates are solid and capable men with the situation always under control. The commanders go home for a space, come back, go home for a longer spell, and one day- just don't come back. Why bother? Let their seconds do as they please. It really makes no difference to them."
"Mmhh," Tenpou nodded.
"But the last one is more stubborn than the others, or maybe just more stupid. He doesn't think about going home. He has some silly notion that his duty to Heaven matters. So he stays on and on. How to be rid of him? Ahh, but one night he's acting strangely. He's in a dangerous state- because you see, Tenpou, these army commanders, in their true shape they're very dangerous, and sometimes their true shape shows through the form they take here. And his clever subordinate realizes that and stays when he's told to go. Stays and puts himself in the path of his commander's violence." Tenpou's face had turned to stone. "He's a very brave man, or perhaps a very ambitious one, and he endures what he has to in order to get the job done. And once it's done, of course his commander can't stay. He's shed blood in the sacred confines of Heaven. He'll take himself quietly home to avoid the disgrace. But just in case- just in case even this stupid commander gets the whiff of blackmail inherent in this very unfortunate occurrence, his clever subordinate- because he's very clever, Tenpou, and very dangerous as well- gets on his knees and begs him not to go, knowing that that will only strengthen his resolve-"
"That's enough," Tenpou said, voice barely audible.
"I am still your commander, Marshal. You forget yourself."
"Yes. My apologies. That's enough sir."
"Because you're wrong."
They stared at each other, expressions closed and wary as enemies.
"You'll have to trust me," Tenpou said. "You'll have to take the risk that I'm not part of whatever's going on. As I take the risk that you're not part of it yourself."
Goujun blinked, watching the world suddenly turn around as he saw it from Tenpou's eyes. He looked away and his hair caught on his shoulders. Loose, a nuisance. He went over to the bureau, got his brush and a leather thong to tie it with, and came back to sit on the bed. Silently he ran the brush through his mane, the thick mass of it, gathering it into one long tail for the braid.
"Uhh- sir?" Tenpou said. "May I do that?" Goujun looked at him in astonishment. Tenpou's hand was out for the brush. Presuming indeed. Silently he handed it over and turned his back to the Marshal. Tenpou brushed Goujun's hair with surprising skill. After a minute he put the brush down and began plaiting his mane with deft light fingers. Satisfaction breathed off his skin, conveying itself through his touch, as if this was something he'd always wanted to do. Marshal Tenpou. It looked as if Tenpou was always going to keep him off-balance. How could anyone tell what went on in that head of his, that inquisitive and secretive head?
From long ago, from yesterday afternoon, he remembered the scene he'd watched in his reverie. The black-coated figure walking along the corridor beside the one in white. Cheerful brainless Kenren with his heavy arm about Tenpou's neck. Friends and, if the talk was true, more than friends. And Tenpou allowed that, or suffered it, perhaps. 'Something new, something outside my experience-' Did Tenpou see Kenren too as something new in Heaven?
At this distance he could smell Tenpou's skin, the acrid cigarette smoke. Feel Tenpou's clever fingers working in his hair. He felt an inexplicable and quite unexpected sadness. They were dragon and kami. King and marshal. Unmeetable aliens, with all the complications of dragonkind and Heaven standing between them like a wall. He would never be able to put his arm about Tenpou's neck and walk with him, simple friends together, as even that fool Kenren could. I could order him to my bed every night, and I think he would even do it, but he will never be my friend. I could take him back with me, with or without his consent, and see what he turns into in a place outside Heaven. I could do that if--
--if I was going back.
"Very well," Goujun said. "You're telling the truth."
"How do you figure?"
"You're too different from the run of Heaven's officers. You wouldn't throw your lot in with men like Chourin. So you must be telling the truth. Unless you're actually masterminding something yourself, alone. And if you are--" Goujun looked back sideways from his eye at Tenpou's stunned face- "it's far too complicated for someone like myself to unravel. I'd rather just let you do it."
"I see." Tenpou sounded subdued. "Will you stay here, sir? Just until I find out what's happening?"
"My brothers want me to return," Goujun said without inflection.
"They prefer to have you there than here?"
"I see." That would be unwelcome news to him, that the dragons were not to be relied on in this. Tenpou bound the end of Goujun's braid carefully with the strip of leather. "Then you will go?"
"I shall stay," Goujun said as Tenpou let go of his hair. "Do not mistake me. There is a limit to my loyalty to Heaven. It was not through choice of ours that we became its servants. But to the extent that I have sworn to serve Heaven, that I will do."
"I see," Tenpou said at his back. "Thank you, sir."
You don't see, but never mind. There's nothing new in Heaven, Marshal? But Heaven itself is new for us, who come from a place even older and more unchanging than Heaven. I could go back to it and I long to go back to it, but if I did I would be going back. Back to what I was for longer than I can remember, back to something I have, it would seem, almost grown out of. Back to the person who violated you last night, because you were there and I could. Heaven diminishes us, yes, it makes us less than we are. But it lets us be different at last. And maybe something will happen to change even Heaven so you can find that difference too. Unless, Marshal, as I very much suspect, you yourself are the beginning of that something different in Heaven.
"Very well." He turned about to face Tenpou directly and say what must be said. "There's one thing more to be settled. Last night I attacked you and did you violence. What satisfaction do you ask of me for that?"
"Satisfaction?" Tenpou sounded flummoxed.
"You are of course entitled to compensation." What would he ask for? Gold he didn't need, promotion he'd just refused. Goujun waited with slight curiosity to hear what he'd say.
"I- umm." Tenpou pushed his glasses up his nose. "Tell me what the connection is between dragons and youkai?"
Goujun's eyebrows rose up in shock. He pulled his expression straight with an effort. "What makes you think there is one?"
"Nothing really. I was just hoping there might be."
"Marshal, you have no idea what you're asking."
"Really?" Tenpou's eyes gleamed with interest.
Goujun sighed. I hope my brothers never learn about this.
"Youkai," he began, "youkai, ne--"