The Secret Agent
The youkai strongholds of Down There were always built in the harshest and most barren places, where the landscape alone seemed to threaten the traveller. Deserts, mountain fastnesses or, like this one, rock-tumbled wastelands. All food had to be brought from afar, all water laboriously brought up from deep wells. But hey, they couldn't build their palaces in the middle of a field or next to a river, Zenon thought with a grin. That'd make life too easy.
He lit a cigarette and leaned against the twisted trunk of a blasted tree. These were the co-ordinates, half a kilometre from the Ox-King's castle, and this was the time, half an hour after sunset on the first day of the third month, going by Down There's calendar.
There was a sliding of stones to his right. Zenon turned to see who was coming. A tall youkai came down the hill and approached the tree. Stood a safe distance back from it.
"My name is Souei, at your service. I am to conduct you to His Majesty's presence."
Souei was as tall as himself, and lean. Bare to the waist, in the barbaric youkai fashion, showing off tight muscles on shoulder and chest. The blue skin marking that crossed his nose was as disconcerting as youkai markings always were- patterns where no patterns should be, like crazy tattoos. But at least he had manners and knew how to address a superior, which was more than Zenon had expected. Dealing with these half-animals wasn't supposed to be fun- it was like negotiating with pigs, actually- but work was work.
They made their way through the increasing dark, not to the front gate of course but to a postern around the back. Souei knocked; it opened silently, and they passed an ancient youkai who eyed them suspiciously and made an odd sign with his hand as Zenon passed. Up yours too, Gramps, he thought. Thence into a low tunnel, dimly lit, and to a flight of stairs. Sneaking the kami into the palace, yeah, cause even the great mucky-muck Ox King with his great muckey-muck pretensions to be High King of all Down There, the biggest hog in the wallow, can't afford to have a kami walk right into his throne chamber. Scare all his pointy-eared ass-kissers into fits, one, and maybe- yeah, just maybe, someone else had their spies here too, paid to tell them what was going on. Litouten-sama might not be the only kami with plans for Down There, and this Souei he'd bought might not be the only youkai working for Heavenly pay. Wonder what Li's offered him? Maybe nothing. Maybe the man had his hopes riding on the message that Zenon was bringing to his King now. Certainly it was the sort of thing a youkai'd want to hear. Do your worst. We'll stand back and not lift a finger.
Another door, this one guarded. The great shambling youkai in front of it exchanged monosyllabic words with Souei, and then went into the chamber.
"Zenon-sama, may I make a request?"
"His majesty is a king. He's used to a certain... deference. If you'd perhaps- refrain from reminding him too strongly which of you is master, it will be easier to fulfill your mission."
Zenon snorted. "Yeah, I can manage that. 'f he doesn't push me too hard."
"And not put his son against you too strongly."
"Son? The son'll be here too?"
"Yes, I--" They were interrupted. The big youkai was back, jerking a thumb behind him. Zenon walked through the door and into an eight-sided room. Not a reception chamber. You didn't walk the length of a hallway with your eyes fixed on the throne at the end. You were in and bang, there was the Ox-king in front of you, big and nasty and looking at you with suspicious black eyes above a bushy black beard. Beard. These youkai...
Souei knelt on one knee. "Your Majesty, I bring you the kami Zenon-sama, as promised."
"Kami," the youkai king said. Whether that was him talking to Zenon or him talking about Zenon wasn't clear. 'Youkai,' Zenon wanted to say back, but restrained himself. He was here to do Litouten-sama's work, and the sooner he got it done the sooner he could leave.
"Majesty," he said, with something a bit more than a nod but nowhere near a bow. "I am Zenon. I serve the Great Minister of Heaven, Litouten, confidante of the Jade Emperor and Minister of War in supreme command of the Heavenly Army."
"What does a servant of the great minister want with Us?" the king growled in his beard.
"Just to tell you how things stand in Heaven right now," Zenon said easily. "Just for your information. Stuff you might want to know."
"We know how things are up there. They're the way they've always been. You can have nothing new to tell us, Kami."
"This is new. Change in heaven. Kami who've looked outside the system that hasn't moved for tens of thousands of years- looked down on earth and seen something worth having."
The king's tone was suspicious.
"Humans," Zenon smiled. "No, not something you'd want for yourself. Not the way you'd want them, at any rate." Youkai were flesh-eaters. Cannibals. Animals. But no matter. "Fresh blood. We're inbred, up there. No new births, no children, haven't been for a thousand years. We need to take in new stock."
"Go ahead," the king said. His expression was like a wall. "What's stopping you?"
"Prejudice. Privilege. The way it's always been done. The granddads saying humans are lower than kami, got to stay on earth, no way you can go bringing *that* into Heaven. Go rut down here if you want to, but leave your get behind you." The king's eyes blinked. He wasn't following where this was leading. "But that's no good, and the great minister knows it's no good. There has to be a way to bring the humans up from earth, the ones suitable to marry with kami, the ones who've had children already, so they can become a real part of Heaven and get society moving again." OK, put it in words of one syllable. Ox-king and ox-brain. "We need a disaster. A reason to evacuate the humans we've fixed on. Something big, a real danger. Hey, a flood would be great, but you know- floods, they don't happen when you want them. So- you know- something else. Something that makes down here dangerous for humans. So the kami can insist that their wives and children be given shelter in Heaven."
"Are you by chance one of those kami?" It was a redhaired youkai standing to the side.
"No chance at all. I am."
"Is that true?" The redhead was talking to Souei.
"Hey, I just said--" Zenon began angrily, but Souei cut across him.
"Zenon-sama, please. Yes, your highness, it is true. He has a wife and son in the eastern continent."
Highness. So that was the prince, huh?
"Happy?" Zenon said to him. The prince just looked back at him with distaste. That was better, actually. Straightforward dislike and none of this mealy-mouthed pretending. "Yeah, I've got a wife and kid, and I want them with me." The hell I do. Up there with the snots and the farts pointing fingers? "If things got so bad down here that I could go to the emperor and demand he bring them to Heaven, I'd be really pleased."
"Indeed?" the prince said. Disdain in that arched eyebrow, like he didn't believe a word Zenon was saying. An act. Zenon knew he was too good a liar to give anyone doubts. "So the great minister is promising he'll stay out of any wars we might begin against humankind?"
"Promising?" Zenon affected surprise. "The great minister doesn't promise anything. The great minister's got nothing to do with this. He doesn't know that you people have your eyes on the human lands-"
"Kami!" the prince snarled, but Zenon ignored him.
"It's got nothing to do with /him/ if half the kami are having affairs down here, including the Emperor's own sister--"
The king looked startled. "Is that a fact?"
"It's a fact. Everyone knows about it, up *and* down. Bet even your pal here does." He nodded bad-temperedly at Souei.
"Zenon-sama, that affair is very dangerous to speak of."
Zenon shrugged. "Up There, maybe. Down Here, who's listening? She had a kid by a human," he told the king. "They stashed him away and tried to hush it up. So if even the emperor's family is doing it..."
"All this talk," the Prince cut in. "Yet you give us no guarantees. Why should we believe a word you say?"
"Hey, all I'm doing is telling you how it is up there. Guarantees? What do you need guarantees for?"
"Your Emperor is in his dotage- has been for millennia. He sees threats to his rule everywhere. He clutches his power to himself like an ape with a nut--"
"Hey!" Zenon said, pretending outrage.
"He's destroyed everything he thinks threatens his rule. He didn't hesitate to send his armies against the dragons because he thought them too powerful, and he won't hesitate to send them against us."
"Listen," Zenon said. "What I'm saying here goes no farther than this room, OK?" He looked at the King. "Yeah, the Emperor is getting old. He's losing it. He can be talked into things and talked out of them. These days it's the great minister does the talking. Give the great minister a good reason to talk sense to the Emperor, and you won't be hearing any complaints. Not from the Emperor, not from the great minister, not from me and not from the people like me. OK?"
"Yes," the king said. "I understand what you say. It makes sense."
"Father, don't believe him! I've told you, you can't think of extending your power unless you're prepared to take on Heaven as well."
"Kougaiji, be silent! What son of mine talks in that lily-livered fashion?"
"A son who has the sense he was born with!"
"Out!" the kind thundered. "Get back to your mother. Tell her if she's going to birth me cowards, to see that they're at least mannerly cowards!"
The prince glared at his father in fury, fists clenched. Then he whipped about and strode down the room. He stopped only for a moment in front of Zenon.
"I won't forget this, Kami! And I won't forgive you!"
Zenon gave him a smile. Hackneyed exit line, Prince. He thought the young man would explode, but instead he stormed away in silence.
Zenon gave a small speaking sigh. "I seem to have angered the Prince. My apologies."
"My son is a fool," the king said. "I shall get myself another one, and soon. Meanwhile, we will consider your words well, Kami. You may thank your master for us."
"The thanks, I hope," he gave the king a direct look, "will be ours." He made himself nod as a gesture at a farewell bow, turned on his heel and walked out of the room with Souei padding behind him.
In the hallway Zenon lit a cigarette. "Now get me outta here. This place smells." No need for nicey-niceness any more. Souei bowed- man, he acted like one of Heaven's chamberlains- and led him back outside.
"Zenon-sama?" Souei said when they were well away from the palace.
"Is that true about the Emperor's sister?"
"Hunh? Yeah, of course it is. You heard the talk-"
"I haven't. The great minister's messages are always to the point. He does not discuss Heaven's affairs with youkai."
"Oh." Zenon was momentarily flummoxed. "Well. Nice back-up there, then. Thanks."
"You're welcome, Zenon-sama."
Zenon sent him a considering look. Not the dumbwit that youkai usually were. Litouten knew how to pick them. "So. You happy about this? You're gonna have human for breakfast, lunch and dinner from now on."
"I am glad my king will be able to carry out his great ambitions," Souei said. He sounded morose. "I however will needs be looking for a new master, and soon."
"Why?" Zenon asked sharply. The man couldn't suspect anything, surely? "The king'll be pretty pleased with you now."
"The king's son will not. I think my life will be both unpleasant and short should I remain here much longer. However," he shrugged and smiled. "The fault is mine for not having been able to persuade the Prince to the great minister's cause as well as his father. One pays for failure."
"Yeah," Zenon said, in the satisfaction of a mission accomplished. "One does." He looked about him. "This is the spot. I'll be going now."
"Farewell, Zenon-sama. I think we will not meet again."
No, probably not. Not if you get taken out with your king when Ox-brain starts running amuck down here and scaring Heaven to death. Litouten's toushin will take care of that. Old Sausage-head's gonna be the Saviour of Heaven, and you're gonna be dead meat.
A pity, in its way. The man was useful, for a youkai.
"Hey," he said. "Tell you what. You head out for the eastern continent. Town on the Long River, called Peachstream. My wife's there- Mirai her name is, anyone can tell you where she lives. You get there in time, I'll see if I can get a place for you in our household."
"Up in Heaven?" Souei said. There was something wrong with his smile. He must suspect things weren't on the level. He wasn't dumb.
"Yeah," Zenon said, straightfaced. "Up in Heaven."
"Thank you, Zenon-sama. It will be my pleasure to serve you."