The Dubious Guest
It came seventeen years ago -- and to this day
It has shown no intention of going away.
--Richard Gorey, The Doubtful Guest
That done. Final instructions to the troops. Quelling their mild protests. What kami didn't mind being told not to risk his neck? They understood now. They were onlookers- witnesses- there only to tell the world how brilliantly Nataku had fought. The honour of this expedition belonged entirely to the house of Litouten.
Watching his son and champion off through the portal to the Lower World. Keeping a proud and fond fatherly expression. Receiving the salutations of the various officials as he left the station and returned through long corridors to his office. The Great Minister, the first in many years to exercise any functions at all. The title of Great Minister was conveniently devoid of set responsibilities in most people's minds. The duty of the Great Minister is to keep the Emperor happy. He alone saw that it was carte blanche to exert influence where it would do you most good. When Nataku came back in triumph he'd have himself declared Supreme Commander of the Army as well, consolidating his position there in formal fashion. Get rid of the troublesome elements- he could think of two or three heads that needed to roll, even if it must be done in secret- and his base of power would be secure. After that, if he felt like waiting before the final move, he could suborn the bureaucracy. Undermine it from the bottom so it would collapse at need like a castle of sand. Not that the bureaucracy was any threat to himself. He'd been a bureaucrat. He knew how useless they were.
His third secretary signaled him as he entered the office, a small ignorable gesture. Messages from his agents, come through the usual back route from Down There, and possibly requiring a reply. He dismissed everyone else and took the thin packet the other had kept hidden in his robe. Looked at the device on the seal. Souei. The matter of the possible itan child...
"You may go," he said, breaking the seal and turning away from him towards the window. He waited till the footsteps were out of earshot before opening the oilpaper pouch. A piece of thick paper, folded square, and a thinner one with writing on it.
For your honourable information-
I have arrived at the house in the eastern continent as per your honoured instructions. It was the master himself who suggested I come here, without my having to ask for a place with him. I have seen the infant. It is normal to all outward appearances, save that its eyes are the colour of rust or dried blood and its hair, what little there is of it, is the same. I succeeded with some difficulty in obtaining a sample of same which I humbly enclose, hoping this is pleasing to Your Excellency and that he will look favourably on his servant...
Blah blah blah no signature of course.
Somebody in the room with him. He swung about- that damned secretary, how dare he- and found himself looking into a face without eyes standing beside him. His insides jumped even as his brain registered what it was. The stained robes of a wanderer, the leather satchel across the body, glasses that reflected the light so the eyes behind were hidden.
"Did I startle you? Ahh, sorry, sorry. Thoughtless of me..."
"What do you want?"
The head tilted. The brown eyes became visible, gleaming with obscure amusement. The man was a mountebank, and a stupid one. Pulling his jiggery-pokery, dropping his little remarks, wearing that knowing smirk on his face, and thinking Li could be impressed by any of it.
"I didn't give you a warranty for him, you know. You do know, yes? Mh, yes. You need to be careful when there's no warranty."
"He's not a machine," Li said heavily. When he used that tone secretaries blanched. But this one--
"As long as you know that." That insinuating grin of his. Always trying to make Li lose his temper. Always failing. "Not a machine, no, of course." Something small twitched in his hand. Limp cloth and rags- no, weighted somehow- A rudimentary human figure, blank cotton face and dangling little limbs. "Flesh and blood that bleeds when it's hacked apart by let-us-say large youkai kings." The doll flopped on its back like a man run through, arms and legs limp. "And then what will you do?"
"Have you fix him. That's what you're here for." That's the only reason you were allowed to stay in the first place. Just standing in the vestibule one day as if Litouten's rank was so low any man could walk into his house without invitation. 'Litouten-sama, how sad to be deprived of heirs. Something could be done about that, you know...' These Taoists with their strange elixirs and pills... and instruments and scalpels and odd glass tubes and... (basins of dark liquid and motors that pump with an unpleasant rhythm and...)
"My only object in life is to serve." He gestured with a long pale hand, its back covered in scattered dark hairs. The tiny doll's arms flapped up and down in distress.
"Then do it." He thrust the papers at him one-handed. "What do you make of this?"
"Mh? Ah yes." He took them, and he and the doll peered at them. "Mhh- dark red eyes? Not good. And here we have-- hmmm." He put everything down on Li's desk, reached into the travelling satchel on the band across his body, and took out a hard-shelled case. Inside was that unpleasant knobby black thing he always squinted through as he squinted now at the reddish hairs on their white paper. Turned knobs, moved the paper, squinted again. He straightened up at last, stuck a finger in his ear, and scratched meditatively. "Something fishy there, yes."
"Itan?" His voice was sharp. He couldn't help it.
"Oh, most definitely. From his father's side." Grin from tobacco-stained teeth.
Litouten blinked. Zenon's doing? Not the cross-breeding itself? "Kami and human matings always result in--"
"Perfectly ordinary children. Naturally. Closely related species, how not? But if there's something wrong on one side or the other, then you get sports. What you call itan."
"Something wrong--?" And the Emperor's sister had birthed an itan...
The knowing eyes told him they knew exactly what he was thinking. "If the integrity of the family's genetic makeup became compromised somewhere back a ways. No no no, I won't name names, or even guess what went wrong there. But our red-haired friend's always struck me as having a few ancestors that mhh shouldn't have been there, you know? Just look at him. I mean."
"Like what?" Youkai? Fox-spirits? Things like you, maybe?
A shrug. "Ahh, now that I wouldn't know, sorry. He's latent. What traits he carries only show up in his offspring. Well-" He considered. "Maybe in himself if the tendency became active."
"It could become active?"
"Now that's the question, isn't it?" The man smiled as one professional to another.
"Stop fooling. I want to know if Zenon is dangerous himself, or just his children."
"You want anomalies to follow rules? Litouten-sama, I'm shocked." Li gave him his stoniest glance. The man sighed, shrugged. "Well, well, I'll stick my neck out. If it didn't emerge at puberty it's not likely to emerge now. Not a danger to you, no. Might want to take some bits of him off though. So it can't happen again, hm?" He grinned a grimy insinuation.
"I've offended you? I'm so sorry. I--"
"Go." The temptation to smash his stupid vanity-sodden face was overwhelming.
"Call me when he gets back if you need me. No, actually, don't bother. I'll be here anyway."
Li's fists clenched. The man smiled at him, took a pinch of shining dust from his pocket, threw it into the air, and vanished. They say they fly on the clouds' backs. Crap.
He went to the brazier and dropped the papers in. Made sure they were charred ash, then stirred the ashes with a stick. Sat down at his desk, drew a sheet of paper from the stack, wetted his brush, and wrote swiftly.
The woman and the child are an offence to Heaven. The Balance of the Universe will not tolerate their existence but will see that their days are short upon the earth. What man can stand against the plagues and disasters of this world when Fate is against him?
So. One less itan to challenge Nataku's position in future. And Zenon? Zenon was too useful to be disposed of yet. A sad accident happening to his wife and child might cure him of his pig-headed fondness for Down There- bitter memories, all that. Present his case to the Emperor as a prodigal returned and it'd be easy enough to have his banishment rescinded. Fine, then. That was settled. He blotted the paper, folded it and sealed it with the seal of some minor official in the Heavenly granary. Rang for his secretary. And saw, lying on its back on the surface of his desk, the faceless rag doll abandoned by its owner. His secretary entered just as he threw it violently out the window.
(To quote from the Observer's obituary for Mr. Gorey here:
In the very popular The Doubtful Guest (1957), a country-house family resembling one of Compton-Burnett's is dismayed by the uninvited Guest, a mournful, furry, inexplicable creature in white tennis shoes... Later the Doubtful Guest was developed into a more disturbing, eyeless being with long rubbery arms, known as Figbash and partly echoing Max Ernst's protean figure Loplop. Other recurring Gorey icons are cats and the armless, featureless Black Doll; other acknowledged influences include Chinese, Japanese and Symbolist art.)