The Fire's Heart


           "Ten-chan, Ten-chan!" Gokuu's terrified voice shrieked from up ahead. "Somebody's burning *up* here!"

           Tenpou's heart lurched in shock. He broke into a flat-out run, leaving Konzen behind. Burning up? In Heaven? Dear god, *how*?? He rounded the corner where Gokuu had gone and stopped suddenly, legs about to give way with ridiculous relief.

           "Ah- ah- Y-your Majesty-" he panted. Gokuu was standing, mouth open, looking up at the tall red figure. Red hair in wings, pale red skin, full red robes- red eyes too, of course. Goushou, King of the southern ocean. "I do beg your pardon."

           Goushou's head turned in his direction. "Tenpou, is it?" he said. What's wrong with his eyes? Tenpou thought. Dragon eyes were odd anyway- red as blood with narrow golden irises and even narrower pupils like vertical slits- but he thought he'd gotten used to them. Yet Goushou's eyes struck him suddenly as-- wrong. Just wrong. A different sort of brain was looking through them and thinking unguessably alien thoughts. "Who- what--" He indicated Gokuu.

           "Ahh, this is Gokuu, brought from Down Below at the behest of Kanzeon Bosatsu-" which wasn't exactly the case, but would do to indicate whose protection he was under- "and now in the care of the bosatsu's nephew, Konzen Douji. Please excuse him. He means no offence. Gokuu is new to Heaven and doesn't know all its citizens yet."  He put a hand on Gokuu's shoulder. "Gokuu, this is Goushou-sama, the red dragon, king of the southern ocean. He's Goujun-sama's older brother- my commander, you remember?"

           "Oh." Gokuu didn't remember, obviously. "He's a dragon? I thought dragons had wings."

           "Ordinarily yes." Tenpou smiled at the silent Goushou to ease the offence. He'd always heard that the commander of the southern army was more easy-going than his younger brother, provided you didn't cross him. "But when he's in Heaven he wears his manform, because a dragon's natural body is twenty times as big as we are."

           "Wow." Gokuu's eyes were round in amazement as he looked at Goushou again. There were footsteps behind them as Konzen at last caught up, panting heavily and out of breath. "Konzen, Konzen- it's a  dragon, Ten-chan says-"

           "Gokuu," Tenpou interrupted gently. "One doesn't talk about kings like that."

           "Goushou-sama," Konzen said. His breath was still short. "I don't believe-- we've met formally. I am Konzen Douji- I-" he faltered, frowned, and stopped. Tenpou followed his glance. Goushou was staring at him with a strangely fixed expression. Creases between his eyebrows, an oddly set look to his mouth-- What's wrong with his *eyes*?

           "Sir?" Tenpou said hesitantly. "Is something the matter?" No answer. The sense of wrongness was increasing. He took a step towards him. "Your Majesty?"

           Goushou did not turn his head. "Where is my brother?" he demanded of Konzen. Konzen looked in bewilderment at Tenpou.

           "Your brother, sir?" Tenpou prompted.

           "Goujun. Where is he?" Goushou was still talking to Konzen.

           "He's in his office, I would assume--"

           "Take me to him."

           "If I might be allowed-"

           "Of course you," Goushou said in impatience, but his gaze never left Konzen.

           Gokuu had retreated a step to stand uncertainly next to Konzen. Konzen was looking at Goushou in puzzlement and outrage. Tenpou shrugged mentally.

           "Very well, sir. If you would follow me..."

           "You must guide me, Marshal. I am blind."


           They made it through the long corridors to the offices of the army's top brass. Goushou walked with his hand on Tenpou's shoulder, a hand that grew heavier and gripped tighter as they proceeded. It was becoming painful when they reached Goujun's office. He'd better be here, Tenpou thought, walking through the startled orderlies in the anteroom and opening the door without knocking. He was.

           "What--" Goujun began in indignation, and stopped at once. Swiftly he came to Goushou's side and took hold of him. "Second brother." Tenpou heard the breath leave Goushou's body, as if he'd been holding it inside all the way here. Goushou put his arms about Goujun's shoulders and his face against Goujun's neck. He looked on the edge of collapse.

           "Marshal. In the cupboard, second shelf, at the back left, there's a square bottle. Fill a cup with half a measure of that." Tenpou moved to do so. "Second brother," he heard Goujun say, clearly and quietly. "Five paces in front of you and two to your left there is a divan. Can you walk with me there?"

           Goushou made a strangled sound that seemed to be assent. Tenpou found the bottle with two celadon cups beside it and filled one with the clear strong-smelling liquid. He took it over to the divan just as Goushou subsided onto it. Goujun rested a knee on the cushion beside him so he could go on holding his brother, who still clung to him as if afraid to let go. He motioned Tenpou to hold the cup to Goushou's mouth. The king drank, shook a little as a tremor went through him, and drank again. Goujun's impassive face watched as the medicine or whatever it was vanished.

           "It's gone, second brother. Be easy. I will stay beside you until it takes effect."

           "Ahh..." Goushou's ruddy skin had an ill-looking greyish tinge to it and his eyes were closed. Goujun helped him lie back against the cushions.

           "Get a cold cloth from my washplace," he said quietly. Tenpou hastened away to the little room off the office. There was a stack of cloths and towels on a lower shelf. He wrung one out in water from the basin and brought it back. Goujun was now sitting next to Goushou, gripping his red hands in his own white ones. He motioned Tenpou to lay the cloth over Goushou's eyes.

           "You'll want fresh ones later?" Tenpou murmured.

           "How do you, second brother?"

           "...hurts," Goushou whispered.

           "In ice, if there is any," Goujun instructed him. "Send Jingen." Tenpou relayed the order for ice water to the outer office and came back.

           "...calacut oil..." Goushou's whispering voice was saying.

           What's that? Tenpou wondered. Goujun's eyes indicated the washroom. "Top shelf of the cupboard," he said. "Brown jar, labelled." Tenpou went to rummage among the odd things that made up the necessities of a dragon's toilette- strange-smelling oils and a lot of pumice stone- brought some more cloths for later use, and went back to the ailing dragon king. So dragons get migraines? It seemed incongruous.

           "Second brother, I need to use my hands."

           Goushou made a fretful sound of refusal and gripped tighter.

           "Let him breathe the fumes." The smell was harsh and astringent, and cleared his own nostrils at once.

           "Ahh," Goushou said, and loosed a deep breath. "On my temples," he murmured.

"Use a cloth," Goujun said instantly. "It would burn your skin." Gingerly Tenpou obeyed. There was a knock at the door and Jingen came in with a silver pail of melting ice. Tenpou nodded to him to leave it by the divan. Wrung another cloth out in the freezing water and substituted it for the old one over Goushou's eyes.

"Good," Goushou said. "That's good." His voice was stronger. "Is that the kami?"

           "Yes," Goujun said.

           The king took a deep breath. "Who was that, with the yellow hair?"

           Goujun looked at Tenpou. "Konzen Douji," Tenpou said. "The nephew of Kanzeon Bosatsu."

           "What does he in heaven?"

           "He- umm, he works in the government." Tenpou was at a loss how to answer. "He's a bureaucrat, basically."

           "But what does he do?" Goushou's voice sounded impatient.

           Tenpou looked at Goujun, who only looked back at him. Dragon eyes were like keyholes. They told you nothing.

           "He- he reads reports, and sends them to the proper ministries, and, well, that's what he does."

           There was more silence. "I don't understand," Goushou said, but not to him. Goujun squeezed his hand. "There is a pattern. There's part of a pattern. I can't see it all. Alone they're nothing. That child. Your marshal. The yellow-haired kami. Together-" He moved fretfully against the cushions. "Goujun--"

           "Second brother, you are tiring yourself-"

           "It's worse than I thought. They make a pattern. I can't see the whole, but it's all wrong. And you're in it."

           "Yes, second brother. I came back here in spite of what you said."

           "No- no." Goushou's face twisted in pain. "That was different. Your fate doesn't twine with his, no more than the rest of Heaven. This is-- This is different. It's all wrong. It--"

Goujun nodded at the square bottle. Tenpou filled the cup again.

           "Second brother. Stop. Breathe. Remember what you told me. The lines of karma in the universe are overwhelming when you see them as energy, but they work themselves out on a level we understand."

           "No- not this time- It's terrible--"

           "Breathe, second brother. Let it wait until the pain has passed. Drink some more--"

           "No! You don't understand--" His voice was going high.

           "Then explain, second brother. I will listen until I do."

           Goushou took a shaky breath, forcing himself. Goujun signalled Tenpou with his eyes and leaned his head over. Tenpou held the cup for him to drink from, and he drained it.

           "Their lines," Goushou was saying in a desperate voice. "All wrong. It makes a pattern. Around you- and others- your lines cut- you know what that means--" Goujun put his lips to his brother's as he spoke and let the liquid run from his mouth into Goushou's. Goushou choked, but Goujun's mouth covered his and he had to swallow. He let go of Goujun's hands and pushed him feebly away. His breath came harshly as if he were weeping. Unmoved, Goujun took the cloth from Goushou's eyes and cleaned his brother's mouth.

           "Goujun-- brother--  you must beware--" Goushou's voice said thickly. "You don't understand. You don't--" Tears ran helplessly out the corners of his eyes and Goujun wiped them away.

           "I understand enough, second brother. Those in the pattern cannot change it. And I don't wish to."

           "Stubborn," Goushou said, voice breaking. "You always-- like Father--" He breathed again and his body went slack. Goujun straightened him on the pillows, put a new cold cloth over his eyes, and stood up. He looked at Tenpou. Dragon eyes were like keyholes. They told you nothing. Tenpou felt suddenly the huge gap between himself and his commander, a gap he hadn't even realized existed.

           "Red dragons see the patterns of karma in the universe," Goujun told him. "If a pattern is particularly strong it can affect them adversely. Blinding pain, exhaustion." He hesitated. "Emotional unrest. He will sleep for several days now. Have the men bring a litter. I shall want him conveyed to my private apartments."

           "Yes sir." He didn't move.


           "Sir, how-- accurate are these things? I can't- forgive me, but I can't see how Gokuu or Konzen Douji could be a threat to..."

           "The workings of karma twist like a snake." Goujun's voice was bleak. "That harm comes from a person need not mean that person inflicts the harm, only that the weight of their past deeds works itself out through them to others' detriment."

           "Konzen?" Tenpou said helplessly. "Past deeds? He's never done anything in his life."

           "Konzen alone is nothing. You alone are nothing. Gokuu alone is nothing. Together with some fourth person you will shake Heaven. Somehow. We are in for interesting times, Marshal."

           "So what can we do about it?"

           "Nothing." Goujun shrugged. "Karma works as it works and may not be altered. I might kill all three of you after what I've heard." Tenpou's face tightened at the calm tone. He would, too. "That would not prevent what my brother saw from happening. It would bring it about, since my life would be forfeit after shedding blood in Heaven. You see?"

           "Yes sir. I see. But--" He stopped, chewing his tongue.


           "There's nothing to be done?"

           "You do what you were doing before. It will take you to where you must go. That is how karma works."

           By the rules. By the book. Tenpou looked at him in silence. Goujun looked back, a model officer of the Heavenly army, not about to concede an inch. Tenpou racked his brains to find a way past the wall, and found none. The silence dragged.

           "Marshal. Goushou saw a karmic line coming from himself that severed our father's. He told our father and begged Father to kill him. Father told him what I just told you, but Goushou would not be persuaded. He insisted. They quarrelled. Violently. Goushou tried to dash his brains out against a wall, and Father had him bound and confined to his rooms, drugged and under guard, until he came to his senses. Then he went hunting in dragon form to ease his anger. He found a prey for the killing and pursued it. But it was no ordinary prey and it killed him. So you see. There's nothing to be done."

           "I see, sir."

           "That will be all, Marshal."

           And that was all there could be. "Yes sir. Good day."



Mar- Apr 03