Goujun applied his seal to the bottom of the document and reached for the next one in the pile on his desk. Statement of the supplies laid in by the quartermaster's stores for the western army during the second month. All in order and accounted for. Goujun applied his seal to the bottom of the document and reached for the next one in the pile on his desk. Report of personnel changes to the western army during the second month. Koumei Taisai, retired; Risan Shousa, invalided out; Hangan Shoushou, invalided out; Kenren Taishou, exiled; Koutan Taishou, invalided out. Fourteen privates, wounded in the melee following Konzen Douji's death on the 12th, invalided out. Goujun applied his seal to the bottom of the document and reached for the next one in the pile. Troop deployments in the western army during the second month. Extra surveillance of the Imperial Palace during the Tenken Revolt in the middle period of the second month. No casualties. One expedition to Under Heaven to contain a savage dimension beast on the 27th. Beast contained with injuries to five personnel, two serious. An unusual number of wounded for so routine a mission, but that would be the way of it until the Emperor appointed a new Toushin Taishi. Otherwise, regular guard and ceremonial duties as usual. Goujun applied his seal to the bottom of the document and reached for the next one in the pile. Short list of candidates for promotion to the vacant position of Field Marshal, to be forwarded to the Emperor with Goujun's recommendation. Shien, Jihei, Shouron. Shien at the top of the list, as expected. Goujun moved to apply his seal next to Shien's name, but stopped.
Shien... An excellent soldier who'd served with distinction under Nataku's command. Goujun approved of the man personally. An irreproachable character-- self-disciplined, of unshakeable probity, close-mouthed and correct. Possibly not the military genius Tenpou had been, but also, mercifully, not the dangerous eccentric the former Field Marshal had proved to be either. The obvious choice. But still Goujun hesitated. Something- something- a doubt, a small uncertainty, holding him back. He'd last seen Shien on the calamitous day that the Toushin Nataku Taishi had turned his bindings inwards and made of himself an empty and soulless shell. It was Shien who'd brought him the news, delivering his report quietly, calmly, in colourless formal language. But there'd been something in back of Shien's expressionless face as he'd reported the loss of his commanding officer, a niggling something that kept Goujun's hand now from affixing his seal next to the name. Not grief, not anger... A kind of nothingness, as though Shien's soul had gone as blind as his eyes and he was standing now in darkness. Whatever it was, Goujun no longer felt easy in his mind about the man. He pressed his seal next to Jihei's name- Jihei the career officer, an able mediocrity- and reached for the next document in the pile.
The door opened without preliminary. Goujun looked up in mild annoyance at the breach of protocol, then rose swiftly to his feet at sight of the armoured figure before him.
"I present to you the great Bodhisattva, controller of the world, symbol of mercy and compass-" "Enough, Jiroushin," Kanzeon dismissed him as she- he- it sauntered into the room and sat itself down in the chair across from him. "Goujun knows who I am."
"Kanzeon Bosatsu," Goujun said, bowing only slightly. The military might be subordinate to the governing echelon in Heaven, but Goujun was still the Dragon King of the Western Ocean and a power in his own right. And Kanzeon Bosatsu was-- Kanzeon Bosatsu, and an affront to propriety. Nonetheless he waited for the bodhisattva's waved invitation before taking his seat again.
"Here," Kanzeon said, and placed something on the desk. A wine jug, round and brown. The kind that Kenren always carried at his hip. Maybe even-- Kenren's wine jug. Goujun sat still, face immobile, as Jiroushin put two cups beside it.
"You can go," Kanzeon said, nodding to her retainer.
"Go, Jiroushin." Jiroushin chewed his moustache in perplexity, giving Goujun a swift worried glance, but there was no disobeying a direct order from the Bodhisattva. Jiroushin went. Kanzeon filled both cups to the brim and took one. Gleaming eyes regarded Goujun over the earthenware lip. "Go ahead, pick it up. It won't bite you."
Goujun picked it up. He waited.
"A toast, shall we?" Kanzeon said. "Absent friends." He- she- alright, she-- drank deeply. Goujun took a small sip. Kanzeon's mouth quirked. "Go ahead, drink. It won't bite you."
"I don't care for wine." Goujun put the cup down.
"Flowers are well enough, and women too, but good wine is the best of all," Kanzeon said.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Something Kenren used to say. It's true."
"I wouldn't know."
"No, I don't suppose you would. Work doesn't give you time to look at flowers or talk to women or taste the wine in your cup. Exactly like Konzen."
"If I may offer my condolences on the loss of your nephew--"
"No need. Konzen was half alive most of his life- a walking mummy. He was lucky to have found Gokuu before he dried out completely."
"It was Gokuu that led him to his death," Goujun pointed out.
"And his death led him to more life than he's known in ten thousand years. He's down there where everything changes, going through all the human attachments he had no time for up here."
"Attachment is error," Goujun said.
"The party line. Drink up, Goujun." Kanzeon grinned. "I'll make that an order if it helps."
It would be adolescent to wait to see if she meant it. Goujun drank, as the fastest way of ridding himself of his unwanted guest. When the wine was gone, Kanzeon would go too.
Kanzeon refilled his cup at once, and her own as well.
"It'll be boring now they're not here any more," Kanzeon said. "This last month was at least exciting."
"Very," Goujun said, lips pursed. "Murder, treason, rebellion. Not to mention a godling run amok in Heaven, costing me seventeen of my men, and the loss of the Toushin Taishi."
"And Li Touten as well," Kanzeon said. "Tenpou's last favour to us."
"The Field Marshal always insisted on acting independently. It was his main failing."
"It worked to our advantage. Li would still be alive and loose if Tenpou and Kenren hadn't taken him out."
"Vigilantism accomplishes nothing. Li Touten should have been properly tried and punished for treason against the Emperor--"
"Punished by whom? You? Me?" Kanzeon gave him a sardonic smile from her very full red lips.
"The next Toushin Taishi, whoever that may be," Goujun said shortly. The Bodhisattva was beginning to grate even on his slow cold dragonish nerves. "Young Homura, the Emperor's kinsman, I suppose. We'd still have had Tenpou here, where he ought to be."
"Ahh. You feel that he- what? Deserted in the middle of battle?"
Goujun blinked. "He had duties here, to the Emperor and to the peace and good order of Heaven. He and Kenren abandoned them to carry out a private revenge. Yes, you could call that desertion of their duty. A good word for it."
"And you would never put your private feelings before public duty?"
"Do you have private feelings? Ah no, no-" she said swiftly. "I'm not mocking you, just asking. Do dragons feel?"
"As much as the gods do, I assume," Goujun said, indifferent. Dragons have no words for what they feel, and consequently there was no need- in fact, no way- of discussing the matter.
"Gods feel nothing. Didn't you know? We're perfect in our divinity. Love and affection and friendship- we don't do those. Can't."
Goujun shrugged. "Nor we."
"How convenient. And how different from our friends down below. Drink to them, Goujun." She raised her cup and drank again. Goujun perforce did likewise. She watched to see that he emptied his cup, and at once refilled it. Goujun measured the flagon out the side of his eye. How much more could there be in it?
"Konzen," the bodhisattva was saying. "I'm rather pleased about him. Too good to be buried alive in the heavenly bureaucracy. You know our trouble, Goujun? We don't give people any outlet for their talents. Space to be the thing they could be. It takes an outsider coming up here and opening doors to make it happen. It took Gokuu to make Konzen realize what Konzen could be."
"Gokuu was born for disaster," Goujun stated, "and disaster is what he accomplished. How not, given what he is? You shouldn't have kept him here, Kanzeon-sama. He should have stayed in Under Heaven where he would have done less damage."
"Or done it to less important people," Kanzeon suggested casually. "You're forgetting what he is, Goujun, even though you saw his true form with your own eyes. The force of the earth put into a body- benign when contained and terrible when loosed."
"A danger to everyone."
"Only to those who think they can hurt others and not be hurt themselves. Gokuu's simply the embodiment of karma in action. He gave back exactly what was given to him- love to those who loved him, violence to those who offered him violence. We're not exempt from the Law of karmic retribution here. It's just that we don't often see it operating so concretely." She smiled reminiscently. "And it would have been such a waste, sending him back down there when he could have been up here, shaking the dust from the established order."
"We had enough people doing that already," Goujun said repressively, "without bringing in outsiders from Under Heaven. We can supply our own trouble-makers, if childishness and lack of control are all that's needed." He grimaced. "Like Kenren."
"It takes innocence and a loving heart," Kanzeon corrected him. "And yes, Kenren had those too."
"And not a shred of responsibility," Goujun countered. "Bad enough to get himself cashiered from the eastern army for laying hands on his commander's wife, without going one worse in the western and laying hands on the commander himself."
"Love is no respecter of rank," Kanzeon said sententiously.
"Love? Lechery, you mean. And Tenpou was no better. Worse, perhaps, because more calculating." Goujun's mouth flattened in distaste."
"Hm?" Kanzeon raised an inquiring eyebrow at him.
"He wanted a weapon to use against the high command, and Kenren just fell into his hands: or walked into his study, more like. A man who'd say and do anything, however rash-- the perfect gadfly to bait the upper officers into premature action. Tenpou must have thought it worth lying on his face occasionally, to secure someone like that for his own use. And I was the one who sent Kenren to him."
Kanzeon's lips quirked. "Poor Goujun. I never knew you blamed yourself for being Tenpou's procurer."
"I didn't do it intentionally." Goujun looked away and took a drink to cover the unpleasant feeling the memory always gave him.
"You didn't do it at all. This is Kenren we're talking about, remember? Who'd bite his tongue out before he'd dance to anyone else's tune."
"He hadn't the brains to know it was happening. Tenpou could always think rings around him, or anybody."
"You think Kenren risked his career and his neck to speak out before the Lord of Heaven, merely on Tenpou's say-so?"
Goujun had no answer to that. He remembered Kenren's voice from the cell, saying, 'Frankly, I just wanted to hear it said for once.' It had been Kenren's own initiative, and Goujun knew it. Kenren had wanted it said even though he'd known how brutal the consequences would be...
"It was a partnership, pure and simple," Kanzeon was saying. "Those two and Konzen. They all wanted the same thing and they were lucky enough to find someone to help them to it. Rare, but it can happen."
"Rare? What's rare about it?" Goujun asked sourly. "This place crawls with factions and alliances."
"Indeed. 'Scratch my back and I'll scratch yours' is the motto of Heaven. Scratching backs and sticking knives into them. The oddity about those three is that they weren't trying to get something for themselves. Altruism- that's rare, up here."
"Mh," Goujun grunted, wincing away from the familiar and depressing thought. He'd been finding the personal politics of Heaven more wearying than usual this last month. The chronic place-seeking, the jockeying for power and currying of favour--- It had invaded even the army, destroying morale. The ranks were still sound, by and large, but the officers... There was no-one he felt he could trust any more, no-one without an agenda of their own.
"They didn't need to betray their friends to get what they wanted," Kanzeon said, echoing his thoughts. "Wouldn't have anyway. Kenren was too honest, Tenpou too intelligent, Konzen too fastidious. Besides,"- she grinned- "Gokuu wouldn't have let them, even had they been minded to it. Call them happy, Goujun, even after what happened. They had love and friendship and a shared purpose- something worth living for and, in the end, someone worth dying for. No wonder they had to go. Much more of that and Heaven couldn't have gone on functioning."
Something strange was happening to Goujun's body even as the Bodhisattva spoke. His lungs had cramped, squeezing his throat shut and cutting off his air. There was a sharp pain near his heart, the way a knife must feel going in. He put a startled hand to his chest to ease the tightness. Something warm and sticky was running down his face. He touched it, and stared blankly at the wet redness on his talons' ends.
"My eyes are bleeding," he whispered in the little space his lungs allowed. I'm hurt, he thought in perplexity. Wounded- how--
"Tears," Kanzeon said. "When dragons cry, they weep blood."
"Dragons don't cry," he said, as the heavy wetness rolled slowly down each cheek and fell plopping, red, on the papers before him.
"Not often," Kanzeon agreed. "That's why."
"This makes-- no sense," he said, puzzling at it. "Am I ill?"
"You tell me. Gods can lie, to ourselves and others, but not dragons. They never see crooked, even if they see things invisible. So look at yourself and tell me why you're crying, Dragon King."
"I'll never know- the things they knew," he whispered. "I'll never feel the things they felt. They were-- the only thing that was ever different from the way things always are. And now they're gone, and I'll never know how it might have been."
"Ahh, yes. No change, ever. The way of Heaven."
"Heaven?" Goujun said. "It's Hell. The universe comes full circle and the two ends of it meet." Odd to be seeing clear again, the way he did at home in his western ocean. It seemed an eternity since he'd done that. Something about the air of Heaven clouded one's eyes, inner and outer. He looked at himself with the full facet of his dragon eye and spoke what he saw, forgetting who it was he spoke to. "We're prisoners, up here. It's the ones in Under Heaven who are free- free to be blind and full of passion, and to feel for their fellows, and to think that love and friendship are real and that they matter, because they don't know that they're only illusion. Like that little monkey..."
"Gokuu. 'The one who understands the things unseen.' The world's a paradox, Goujun. Heaven is Hell, and Heaven's enlightenment is error. So maybe Gokuu's illusion will turn out in the end to be enlightenment."
"For them down there, maybe. But we up here- we're bound by the Law. All we can do is watch them and envy."
"Anhh. We do that," Kanzeon said. "That's what gods are for. You're not a god." Goujun looked up at her. "You could join them down there- Tenpou and the rest. Be one of them."
"No," he said, with the undeniable truth before his eyes. "I'm not one of them and never could be. Even in Under Heaven, I'd still be Goujun the dragon king. Fellowship-- friendship--" his mouth twisted a little at the next word- "love-- the things they valued here and that drove them from Heaven- those are beyond me."
Kanzeon sighed. "That little monkey up in his prison of rock. And the dragon king of the western ocean, in the prison of his Self."
"You know that the Self is an illusion?"
"The party line," Goujun quoted back at her unhappily. "What I am is as real to me as the rocks that surround Gokuu are to him. And neither of us will ever get free of them."
"Don't be too sure. Never is too big a word, even for Heaven. Gokuu lies in his cave and dreams of the sun he cannot see, but the sun exists nonetheless. And you sit at your desk and dream of being Gokuu. Of being simple and innocent and open and trusting, and all those things you think you cannot be."
"I can't. To be them I'd have to be someone else entirely, and it's too late. I can't go back to before my egg was hatched and become a different person." The iron laws of the universe were about him like bars, and the scalding vision of loss- loss of what I never had- burned his soul like a brand. It ached rawly, and felt that it would ache forever. Kenren- Tenpou- "I am what I am, no matter how much I would be otherwise." Konzen- Gokuu-
"A realist." Kanzeon filled his cup a last time, tipping the gourd nearly all the way up, then poured the last drops into her own. "A final toast, then. To what might have been."
Goujun drank. He thought of Tenpou, affable, low-key, soft-spoken and terrifying-- terrifying in defence of his friends, terrifying in pursuit of his ideals. Of Kenren, adolescent and annoying, whose gallantry and generosity had been like a rose blooming in a wasteland of stone. Of Konzen and his chronic frown of dissatisfaction- the tight-mouthed look that echoed strangely the face Goujun saw in his mirror every morning- and how it had smoothed out these last few months into something like contentment-- almost, you might say, happiness. Of Gokuu, whose smile was like the sun on water, who believed in the goodness of the world about him and who even now, even in his dark prison, still knew nothing of the darkness in the souls of men. Of being someone for whom all those things were possible, and how different the world must be for one like that. He put the cup down and looked at the piled paper on the desk before him. And this for me.
The coldness in his hands was the first sign. Numb, only a faint tingle in his fingers' ends. He tried to lift them but the response was too slow.
Unbelieving he looked up at Kanzeon.
"I put it in the last cup," she affirmed.
"You're a god," he said through stiff lips. "You can't take life."
"I'm the bodhisattva of mercy and compassion. The greatest mercy I can show you is to open the door of your cell for you." She smiled. "I'd do it the way I did for Konzen, but you're too much a dragon for that to work. Too cold and settled to let a young animal find his way into your heart, however winsome he might be. Which leaves me only this." She- he- tilted its wine cup. The dark eyes, suddenly neither-sexed, regarded him unreadably. "All that keeps you in the prison of being Goujun is the knowledge that you are Goujun. I'm taking that from you, along with your life." It sat back in its chair. "Adieu, Dragon King. Forget all this when you're down there. Be only what you are, a white dragon, and discover for yourself whether friendship and loyalty and love are illusion or enlightenment." Kanzeon put fingers to lips and blew him a kiss. "'Then to the elements be free, and fare thou well.'"
'Free' Goujun thought. It was the last word in his mind before the poison put its cold finger on his heart and stopped its beating.