Leave of Absence
"Demoted to General," his oldest brother echoed flatly.
"By the Emperor's orders," his second brother said.
"Meaning Litouten's succeeded in taking your army from you," his younger brother concluded.
"Your own fault," his oldest brother said. "You should have kept your men in line."
Goujun said nothing. You don't argue with older brothers, not when they're as angry as his own were now.
"Tenpou- Kenren- everyone knew they lacked discipline," his younger brother observed. "If you'd demoted *them* in time or ejected them from your army, you'd have been spared this."
"I could have transferred them to the northern army," Goujun retorted, glad for the chance to lash out, "and then you'd have gotten it in the neck."
"No," his oldest brother said at once. "The northern army isn't important. It's the western that has responsibility for Down There, and the western that Litouten had his sights on. You should have been more careful-- not given him an opening like that revolt and massacre. You weren't. You brought this on yourself and on all of us, Goujun."
Goujun bit back the retort on his lips. He was angry too, angrier than he'd ever been, but the miserable sense of impotence mixed with it made it impossible for him to think clearly. This last blow was too sudden and unexpected when all the disasters were over with, and Heaven gone back to some kind of normality. Unexpected by him, at least, though his brothers wanted to say that they'd seen it coming.
"Litouten did half your work for you when he reduced Kenren to the ranks," his second brother was saying, "and you went and got it reversed. Didn't you know Litouten would hold a grudge over that?'
"Litouten was a bureaucrat. How could I have imagined he'd try for my army?"
"He had himself declared Minister of War," his oldest brother countered. "Charged with control of the armies. What did you think that meant?"
"Nothing! Who do we war against up here? Youkai beasts? Don't make me laugh. He was the toushin's father so Minister of War was an appropriate title. It means nothing, but it gave him rank and prestige. That's all he wanted--" He checked.
"That's all you thought he wanted," his oldest brother corrected him before he could do it himself. "You were wrong. Now you get to pay."
The flat statement left no room for protest. Goujun looked at his brothers' closed faces.
"You won't do anything to help." It wasn't a question.
"There's nothing to be done."
"Appeal to the Emperor on my behalf. Ask him to change his sentence. If all three of you--"
"The Emperor is terrified of his own shadow since the Seiten Taisei went amok. He clings to Litouten, hoping for Nataku's revival, and Litouten runs Heaven as he pleases."
"But the army--!!"
"He's taken command of your army now. We have to look to ours." No recourse. His oldest brother had spoken.
"You will of course resign and return to the Western Ocean," his second brother added. "A dragon king can't appear as a mere general in the army he once commanded."
"That's what Litouten counts on me doing," Goujun countered. "Why should I go along with his plans?"
"We look to our armies, as I said. I want no suspicions in Litouten's mind that we plan to oppose him."
"He'll think it anyway."
"Let him. I'll give him no grounds to act on."
Maybe he has no grounds to act on. Maybe you have no plan to oppose him.
Maybe you'll secure your own positions with the sacrifice of your brother. The furious thoughts whirled in his mind, but there
was no use giving them vent. If his brothers were indeed betraying him from
self-interest or fear, pointing it out would only make them angrier. In his
present bitterness he felt that the breach between them might be beyond repair,
and the misery of that kept his tongue still.
"Third brother," his younger brother said after a moment, "going home is the best plan for now until things get settled here. Could you really humble yourself so far as to take orders from a celestial, in the army that once was yours?"
He sighed. His younger brother had always been closest to him. "I could do it," he said at last, "if anything was to be gained by it. But just to make a statement-- yes, and keep Litouten on his guard-- no. Alright. I'll go."
"That would be best." The clear relief in his oldest brother's voice hurt. Goujun nodded his farewells to the three of them and left the room.
It was his fault, if you went back far enough. He'd crossed Litouten and not thought there'd be consequences. Of course he couldn't have left Kenren to rot in that cell while Litouten took out his petty malice on him, but he needn't have reversed the demotion. But. But. There'd been nothing wrong with Kenren's suggestion- it was a surprisingly practical recommendation in fact: they didn't have another toushin to replace Nataku if he'd been killed. It was just his way of making it that had deserved a reproof. Reproof, not punishment. The Great Minister had been interfering with his army, Goujun's, and that he couldn't put up with. One of the civil side overstepping his bounds from personal feeling--
From ambition. Goujun almost groaned aloud. His brothers were right again. Litouten had had his eye on Goujun's power from the start and Goujun had never noticed.
So now. He was losing his army. He was losing his men and his position and... everything that had mattered up to now. There remained only the last thing an officer could do. Write his report and resign his commission.
Resign? His back stiffened in resistance. He was the dragon king of the western ocean and until this morning, the commander of the army of the west in Heaven. He wasn't going to give all that up at a stroke and meekly do as others wished him to. He'd take a leave of absence and go home. Let Litouten think it was a face-saving excuse to avoid the humiliation of a thorough rout. It might be: there might never be a reason to come back: but at least it left a small door open to hope.
He'd come into his office. He pulled the chair of his desk back and carefully sat down in it. Judging distance was still hard with only one eye. He felt a small jerk of surprise. Maybe it hadn't been an accident, that mistaken sword thrust during the final melee in the castle's lowest level. One of his own men, unintentional- but perhaps he'd been suborned by Litouten already. The Great Minister always wore a bandage over the eye the Seiten Taisei had taken out; maybe his own was in revenge for that. He was suddenly sure of it, and his shoulders slumped in defeat.
His mind wasn't made to follow that kind of malice and deviousness. Courage and honour were what he knew: devotion to duty, following the clear path of virtue, giving loyalty to those above him and accepting loyalty from those below. That was the only way he could act. That was why he'd barely noticed Tenpou's eccentricities and why, in the end, Kenren's insubordination hadn't galled as it should. They lived by the same ideas as himself. But Litouten... he couldn't understand the mind of a man like that. If the only way to win against it was to foresee how it would act and take protective measures, then he would never win.
He didn't know how long he sat looking bleakly at the empty paper before him. Resign? Admit defeat? Simply give up the impossible fight and go home? Or what? But a noise drew his attention and he looked up.
"Not looking very happy, Dragon King."
"I heard what happened."
Kanzeon took the chair across from him without waiting for an invitation. Not that bosatsu needed invitations from former commanders or indeed anybody--
"So- what will you do now?"
"I don't know."
"Want me to ask the Emperor to give you your position back?"
He looked at hir unspeaking. It would work. Kanzeon was the one person in Heaven the Emperor would give way to. But if he did- thwarting Litouten's scheme- when he didn't know what further things Litouten was planning- would Litouten then attack him directly? Or go after someone close to him? His men who were still loyal, or- Li couldn't touch his brothers, surely, but might he suborn their armies? Or had he already done so--
"I don't know." This misery, not being able to act, not seeing his way clear.
"Don't worry about him. What I had in mind was a small quid pro quo that kind of involves you not being here for a while."
Goujun looked an inquiry.
"Would you mind taking a leave of absence?"
"No," he said in surprise. "I was thinking of it myself."
"Excellent. It's what I like about you, Goujun- you're so easy to work with." Goujun wondered if that was a compliment, but the Bosatsu was continuing, "I'll ask the Emperor to reinstate you as commander, currently non-acting while you're away on my business. The Minister of War naturally gets to appoint someone to carry out your duties in your absence. Everyone's happy."
"Maybe. What is your business?"
"My nephew needs a way of getting to the West."
Goujun's mind stuttered. "Your nephew---?" Is dead, he wanted to say.
"Is incarnated as a high-ranking priest scheduled to go on a long and possibly dangerous trip through enemy territory on a very important mission. He needs transportation. I was thinking a four wheeled vehicle made for rough terrain, capable of carrying passengers. Can you manage that kind of transformation?"
"I suppose I'd have to stay that way throughout? I can't appear like this Down There, obviously-" he nodded to himself, "and my dragon form is even more disruptive. Staying a... a machine for a long period is likely to be wearisome--"
"You could be a dragon occasionally if you kept yourself small."
He nodded. "That's doable. But then there's the matter of protection. Konzen Douji is an estimable man from the little I saw of him, but he's no soldier, and as a small dragon I couldn't be of much assistance."
"No problem. He has Tenpou and Kenren with him. And the monkey as well, for what it's worth."
"If you don't want to be attached to Konzen personally, and I can quite see how you wouldn't, you can hook up with Tenpou. Tenpou's incarnation, rather. I think you'd like him. Much the same, only cleaner."
"That sounds promising." He spoke neutrally to keep from his voice the wave of pleasure he'd felt on hearing the name. Taking the field with Tenpou again-- and Kenren, but that he could bear-- "There'll be a limit to our communication if I don't have manform, and Tenpou was always good at divining my wishes."
"Mh, glad you like the idea."
"Oh." He was. He stopped doing it. "Very well. I must write my report of the incident for the records and note my intention of taking a leave of absence from the Army. When will you want me available to go?"
"Come by my rooms this evening. I can manage something a little better than a dimension gate for your trip." The bosatsu got up. "See you tonight."
"Yes. Until this evening."
Goujun picked up his brush and looked at the empty paper. The fragrance of Heaven's never-ending cherry blossoms came to his nostrils. He'd be leaving all that- all this up here- for a while. A combat mission in the human lands, through dangerous territory with a clear goal in mind, in the company of men who felt as he did. What was that phrase Tenpou had quoted from Down Below? 'Sounds like Heaven'? Goujun snorted and began to write.