"...or the leopard his spots?"
(Author's note: the names of Japanese army ranks are elegant and logical, those of American and British army ranks clunky and confusing. Usage has linked gensui / marshal and taishou / general in most people's minds, but 'lieutenant general' (the rank below general) and even 'major general' (the rank below that) are too much of a mouthful for me. Thus my lieutenant-generals are usually called Chuujou and my major-generals (what Tenpou is in this story) Shoushou. Even a very basic knowledge of Japanese will render the gradation of taishou- chuujou- shoushou easy to remember.)
The officers of the western army stood at attention by the portal to Down Below, waiting the arrival of their commander in chief. Tenpou, as a mere major-general, stood well to the rear of the assembly, in which position he trusted to avoid any critical attention to his uniform and person. The former was past reproach- he hoped- being as recent of acquisition as his current title, and the latter was as past reproach as he could make it. Tenpou was aware that his standards of 'clean' and those of the army's Marshal were not always in agreement, but how one arrived at the Marshal's standards was still past his understanding.
A slight stiffening of the atmosphere marked the arrival of the Ocean King. He walked unheeding through their ranks and at the gateway addressed his second without preamble. "I leave the army in your care, Marshal. Look to it." He sounded even more dyspeptic than usual, if that were possible.
The Marshal saluted with his accustomed punctilio. "This person gratefully accepts command of the army of the West and will do his utmost to merit the Commander's confidence in him."
Goujun answered with a grunt and a nod. He turned on his heel and entered the portal. The men saluted as one and watched as his figure disappeared.
"Very well, gentlemen," the marshal said, in a much more relaxed tone. "Dismissed. And try to keep your behaviour within the bounds of decency this time."
"Bounds of decency?" Tenpou asked General Taigan as they left together. "When the dragon's away, just how much do the mice play?"
"I mean, do you usually relax discipline when Goujun-sama's not here?"
Taigan grimaced. "No, but discipline gets relaxed anyway. Everyone knows what he's gone for, pretty much, so it's hard to stop them from doing the same."
"*I* don't know what he's gone for. What?"
"Flesh," Hourin Chuujou said behind them.
"Pardon?" Tenpou said, startled.
"Of one kind or another," Hourin amplified. "The dragon kings have a way of disappearing every so often- once a century or so. General opinion is, they're in heat."
"Males don't go into heat," Tenpou objected. And I'm not sure lizards do at all.
"Prime, then. Whatever. They go home to breed."
"That's one theory," Taigan said heavily. "Some of us think they go home to feed. Dragons aren't vegetarian by nature and the Kings' position doesn't let them sneak Down Below for yakitori." He gave Hourin a disapproving look.
"Everyone does that," the chuujou shrugged. "It's one of the customs of the army."
"Still," Tenpou said, "you can see how someone in the Dragon's position needs to be more discreet."
"Poor sod," Hourin said. "And lucky us. Plenty of feeding *and* breeding for the next little while."
In fact what followed wasn't a general carouse, just a holiday atmosphere about the barracks. The officers still called the men out for drill and attended to any disturbances Down Below. Nonetheless the air often smelled strongly of roast meat, and high-pitched giggles could frequently be heard in the mens' rooms. Tenpou found himself with more free time than usual and happily spent it in continued exploration of the rambling structure of headquarters. He followed corridors to see where they went and opened doors to see what was behind them. Nowhere and dust was what he usually found, but one or two discoveries- including the overflow stacks of the Imperial Library- occasionally rewarded his efforts. He'd have made the effort anyway: he liked knowing things.
The stacks naturally proved both irresistible and enlightening. Puzzled by that niggling question of whether lizards go into heat and whether dragons are lizards and all the ramifications of that line of enquiry, he started poking around in the natural history area and thus stumbled on a most informative little tome.
"I think I've found an answer," he told Hourin one day, as they met after call-over. "About dragon mating habits. It's here." He pulled the little book from his greatcoat pocket.
"Yeah? Lemme see that. Hey- what the hell *is* this?"
"Dragon script. They're the same characters as ours; you just have to get used to the way they write them."
"Sheesh. They look like they're melting."
"I believe they're intended to look like they're floating on water."
"Well, there's no way *I* can read it. What does it say?"
"Essentially, dragons of the noble classes conclude temporary state alliances for the purposes of begetting offspring. They mate- I assume is what the phrase means- and remain together for two hundred days while the egg gestates, and may stay together for the remaining fifty days until it breaks."
"Anh. So Goujun-sama's gone off to get himself a pollywog. Err- an heir, I mean."
"It would seem. How long do the Kings usually stay away on these occasions?"
"Err- a week or so Up Here time, so, well anything from six months to two years Down There."
"Then the time frame's right. So-- mhh-- should we arrange some kind of- I don't know- ceremony or something when he comes back?"
"No. Why would we?"
"Well- a son- or a daughter- it's a cause for festivity, or at least a little card...?"
The chuujou looked at him oddly. "Shoushou, in case you need telling: dragons aren't like us. I don't think they do pretty red 'Congratulations, it's a boy!' cards."
"Maybe not. But *we* do, and he's our commanding officer..."
"Yeah, he's the Commander. That's where it starts and that's where it ends and that's the way both sides like it. He's not one of us, Tenpou. You seem to be forgetting that fact."
"Yes, I suppose I am. Sorry." He gave Hourin a small smile and a salute, and went back to the stacks to do a little more reading, just to see if both sides did like it that way, and if they did, why.
Dragon history from Down Below and the old wars between dragons and Heaven- dating back as far as the Emperor's youth- got him into more history from Down Below, including the ancient contention between dragons and youkai, which would seem to have been an exceptionally bloody business on both sides. Dragons and youkai didn't care for each other, that much was clear, but they seemed unable to leave each other alone. A natural antipathy, rather like the enmity between dragons and firebirds, another theme that led him down another path of research, where he happily wandered until his pocket watch went off. He looked at it blankly for a moment- noon, yes, why had he set it to go off at noon? Then he remembered and consulted his memorandum book: which informed him that he was, indeed, on post duty that afternoon.
Thanks to this ingenious precaution, he was therefore precisely where he ought to be when a soldier came in, quivering with excitement.
"Major-general, orders from the Marshal. You're to take a squad Down Below. A youkai beast is ravaging the coast of the western sector--"
Tenpou was on his feet and out the door, pulling the man in his wake.
"How many squads? Just us?"
"No sir. Three, sir. Seems it's pretty big."
Big ferocious youkai beasts. That sounded promising. Tenpou smiled in anticipation.
He collected his men from the barracks and hurried them to the portal where General Taigan and Senshin Chuujou joined him. Thirty soldiers in all, fifteen armed with narcotic guns and the rest carrying refills and ropes.
"Alright, men, listen up," Taigan said. "This thing has been running amok in the forest back of a small fishing village. There's a swath of trees flattened there, and the village folk say they've heard its roars three nights in a row. Nobody's seen it clear enough to say what it looks like- it only comes out at night- but it takes something pretty big to snap a grown tree in half, so we're going in force."
"Where does it go during the day?" Tenpou wondered. "Are there caves in the area where it could hide?"
"Not important," Taigan said. "It's nocturnal, so we go hunting by night. It's full moon down there so we'll have enough light, but still, be careful. Don't get in each other's way. Ready? Right, let's go."
The gate deposited them in an open space in the woods. Not a natural clearing: great broken branches and a myriad twigs littered the ground, making the going hard. Ahead of them trees thrashed violently as if shaken by a gale. There was a low subdued roaring coming from all about them. It disoriented Tenpou for a minute until he realized it was the distant sound of the sea; and at that moment another roar from in front of them, accompanied by the cracking of wood breaking, drowned it out.
"Senshin, you and your men circle to the left. Tenpou, to the right. I'll take the rear. Fire at will but only when you're sure you can hit it. Set it off on a stampede and I'll have your guts for garters."
"Yes sir." Tenpou signalled to his men and they began moving, as quietly as possible, towards the side of the agitated trees. The roars became louder. Tenpou frowned.
"It's moving in our direction," he said. He held his stun-gun ready. "Fan out as you go towards it and don't get caught all together."
They moved more swiftly, making a wide circle that then closed in on the unbroken part of the forest. Tenpou still kept to the lead and the shortest route in, to be there first. There was a crack like thunder and a huge branch, thicker than a man, came falling across his path. He flattened against a neighbouring trunk and peered into the shifting darkness.
Something bellowed and reared upwards thirty feet in front of him. It was big, yes, big as a house. And wounded. Moonlight showed the strips of flesh hanging off the scaly body, in more than one place, that swayed sickeningly when the thing moved.
"It's hurt bad," a voice whispered behind him. It was his lieutenant, catching up with him. "It'll be really dangerous now."
"Yes," Tenpou said, distracted. The beast launched itself furiously at another tree that cracked and bent under the onslaught. The roaring came again, mixed with a high-pitched hissing sound. The branches were waving- flapping, almost. No, not branches, those were-
The world turned upside down inside Tenpou's head. The one clear thought in it was, It has no front legs, as if that explained everything. It has no front legs, it has wings.
"It's a trap!" he said urgently. "Tell the others- get word to the other parties, and quick! Back!! Get back!!" he yelled to the dark woods behind him. "It's a trap!!" His lieutenant was already running into the trees. Hopefully he'd be in time.
Tenpou turned back to the huge body before him. Its head waved above him hissing fury and menace. He walked forward and stopped when he was certain the monster could see him clearly. Then he saluted.
"Tenpou Shoushou of the celestial army of the West reporting for duty. If there is any way he may be of assistance to your Excellency I beg you will make it known to him."
The beast growled in reply. Not angry, not exactly- not angry in the way of a ferocious animal; and certainly not injured. Annoyed. Frustrated. It put one great leg forward- to take a step? No. It hissed at him again. Tenpou came closer.
A large sheet of skin flapped on the leg, tattered to ribbons at the edges from the attempts to dislodge it. It was still attached around the ankle. Tenpou took hold of it.
"Will this hurt--" he began but a curt growl, almost a bark, shut him up. Of course not, fool, it conveyed. Just pull, and be quick about it.
"Yes sir." He pulled. The skin came off like rotten velvet disintegrating. Satisfaction radiated from the beast. Finally. Tenpou had his mouth open to ask if there was anything more but never got to say it. There was a blast of wind that knocked him backwards. The great body rose high overhead on its wings and disappeared in the direction of the ocean.
Three days later the army assembled a second time to greet their commander on his return. Tenpou kept his eyes fixed forward to avoid catching Goujun's eye, though it felt rather like an ostrich in the sand. Especially as he was summoned shortly thereafter to Goujun's office, which he'd known would happen because Taigan had told him so, furiously, when they met again that night Down Below. The Marshal was there, looking thunderous, and Taigan, looking vexed, and Senshin, who just looked worried.
The Dragon regarded him without expression.
"Shoushou, I am told that in my absence you accompanied Taigan and Senshin on a mission Down Below to dispose of a rampaging youkai beast. While there you ordered your own men to stay back in defiance of your own instructions; sent false information to the rest of the squads to keep them away; went after the beast yourself, and then failed to subdue it. Is this true?"
"By and large, sir, yes it is."
"By and large?"
"My actions were based on a theory I had about the situation, which in the event would seem to have proven mistaken--"
"You just wanted to grab all the glory for yourself!" Taigan burst out.
"Well, if you want a job done properly--" Tenpou suggested.
"Individual initiative is not a virtue in the military." Goujun's flat statement ended the matter.
"No sir. My apologies, sir."
"Your apologies are due to the general and the lieutenant."
"Yes sir." He turned to the others and saluted. "Taigan Taishou, Senshin Chuujou, I apologize for my actions and the trouble and annoyance they caused you."
"Very well," Goujun said before they could respond. "You will be docked half-pay for the next period. Keep your nose clean from now on, Shoushou."
"Marshal, you and the others can go. I want a word in private with Tenpou."
The others saluted and turned to leave. Taigan gave him a meaning glower in passing, Senshin a worried glance. The door closed behind them. Tenpou looked back at Goujun and found himself caught in the narrow red and gold stare. It was the first time the full force of the commander's attention had been focussed on him personally, and the parallel to snakes and small birds was unavoidable.
Dragons aren't like us. No, very definitely not.
"And?" Goujun said.
"Does your Majesty not have human-form servants at home?" That was what he'd been wondering most about.
"Then why not use them to umm--?"
Goujun sat back. Some of the fierce concentration lifted from Tenpou.
"In my observation, once kami reach adulthood they shed nothing but their hair, and the experience causes you no pain. Correct?"
"Psychologically I hear it's very painful, but physically, yes, that's right."
Goujun's thin eyebrows quirked for a moment. "So you have nothing to compare it with." His mouth pursed. "We find the process uncomfortable at best, maddening at worst. It tends to make us irritable, prone to quarrelling and often to violence. The company of others is unbearable and usually unadvised."
"Ahh." Tenpou considered this. "Actually, now I think of it, the females of our species do shed the lining of certain organs on a regular basis. One hears it results in a not dissimilar mindset. So to that extent I can appreciate your Excellency's situation."
There was no immediate reply. Goujun went on looking at him, thinking his own thoughts. At last he said. "You have certain qualities I don't usually associate with the military. Perceptiveness, intuition, sensitivity to nuance. And, naturally, discretion." That last managed to be both statement and question simultaneously
"I wouldn't call it discretion, sir. Prudence, more." He gave Goujun his wooliest smile. "The beast I encountered the other day was quite formidable. It could have flattened me with a single step. And when I consider that it's only one of a whole tribe of such creatures- really, I'm overwhelmed into silence."
Goujun gave him a grin, there and gone. It was by far the most disconcerting thing he'd ever done.
"You'll go far, Shoushou."
"I trust not," Tenou said, too rattled to be other than truthful.
Goujun's eyebrows rose in surprise. Displeasure too, no doubt.
"Calling a superior's attention to yourself, for good or ill, is always a bad idea when you want to lead a quiet life," Tenpou explained. "Naturally I must regret the contretemps that drew me to yours. Middle rank, a little action, chances to further my studies of Down Below- really, I don't want more than that." Couldn't we just agree to forget this ever happened?
Goujun took his eyes off Tenpou at last. He leaned back in his chair and picked up one of the papers before him, dismissal clear in his attitude. "As you like, then, Shoushou. We'll forget this ever happened. You may go."