Chapter 1: I. Guen
“Human warrior,” the dragon says in its terrible voice. It does not sound distressed, but there is still a grief and a fury running beneath the words that reverberates in Guen’s bones, that churns his blood. He coughs and struggles to draw himself up, gripping his useless, blunted sword.
“Human warrior, your king is in peril.”
“They are going to kill him,” he spits, his hands trembling. He is tired, so tired. “I know. Why don’t you stop it? If you can come down from heaven, why don’t you fight?”
“You care so much for a dragon’s life?” The white dragon asks, its long tongue licking between sword-like teeth. It is not mocking him, exactly, but Guen still feels as though he is being judged. He staggers up to his feet, flings back his bloodied hair, and bares his own teeth at the god.
“When I met him, I didn’t know he was a dragon,” he says. “He didn’t tell me the truth for a long time. He was happy, I think, that I wanted to be his friend without knowing he had ever been anything more than a human like myself. When I did finally ask him about his name he confessed everything without hesitation, but he looked so anxious. Like he was afraid I would hate him, or see him differently. Like he was afraid of what I would do.”
The white dragon’s breath cascades around him and over him like a fall of water from the mountains, white and fine and rushing with power. Guen realizes he is smiling, and then that he is crying, too. He rubs at his eyes with his grimy hand.
“And did the truth change anything, human?”
“No. I loved him. I still love him. I would die for him man or dragon both, and nothing could ever change that.”
For the first time, the dragon moves. Its long body twists, flows up like white smoke, curling against the silver sky. Its head turns east, towards the sun. Towards the castle.
“Very soon, now,” the white dragon breathes, the words rumbling through Guen’s breastbone. He cannot feel anymore his own heartbeat, only the throbbing power of the dragon’s voice. “Very soon, now, Hiryuu will die. They thirst for his blood. They have spears; they have dragged him out from the stone house.”
For an instant, everything just stops—the pain in his hands, the light in the sky, the very breath in his body.
“Then save him!” Guen screams. “Save him, why are you lingering here with me? Why aren’t you stopping them?”
“He forbade me from harming any human, even to save his life,” the white dragon replies, and then those immense, lamp-like eyes pierce Guen again, the full weight of the dragon’s will and thought crashing over him like a flood.
“You say you love him as I love him. You say you would die for him as I would kill for him. If I gave to you the power you need to protect him, would you save his life?”
Guen sucks in a deep breath, and then breathes it out again. The air is so cold, his breath has become as white as the dragon's own.
He drops his useless sword and reaches out his hands to the white dragon. He holds them there, small and battered, palms up as if in prayer.
"Only give me the strength I need to save him," Guen says, "And I shall do the rest."
Chapter 2: II. Guen
In which Guen meets a crazy kid with red hair.
When he meets Hiryuu for the first time, he has no premonitions about dragons, or gods, or even kings. He pushes his way to the front of the gathered crowd in the village square and all he sees when the last of the villagers shuffle out of his way is a slim, slightly gawkish young man wearing shabby clothes, barefooted like a pauper but with skin as pale and unmarred as any prince’s. The stranger is slightly crumpled on the ground as though he was kicked there—which he probably was—but he does not look obviously injured. Guen stands with his arms folded, straightening his broad shoulders as though he is not utterly exhausted by the long day of fieldwork, and waits for an explanation. The mob hushes.
“Hyun’s wife found him skulking by the river, and we grabbed him before he could run,” a man at his elbow mutters nervously in the quiet. “He was speaking with some of the children. There were signs he had been camping there for some days.”
Guen nods sharply, narrowing his eyes as he looks down at where the stranger is sprawled in the dust.
“Are you one of Gi-hen’s spies?” He asks bluntly. The boy—for he really is younger than Guen first thought, when he raises his face, at least five years younger than Guen himself by the look of it, with delicate features that would be striking were they not overshadowed by that curling head of shockingly red hair—looks up for the first time. His bright eyes widen slightly, and he shakes his head.
“Then who sent you? Lord Kaeju? Lord Seung? What is your master after this time—our woman, or our children, or our land?”
“I have no master,” the boy says. He shapes his words simply, like a common brat would, not like a nobleman at all despite his fair skin and pretty face. Guen grits his teeth.
“Liar,” he growls.
“I do not lie,” the boy replies calmly. “I am sorry that I frightened you so badly, but I serve no lord.”
“You are … Sorry?” He repeats, stupidly. The boy nods and shifts to sit more tidily on the dusty ground, folding his hands in his lap. Guen notices for the first time that there is bad scabbing across his knuckles, as though he burst them open in a fight. They look only a few days old.
“I did not mean to worry you,” the boy explains. “I merely did not want to intrude upon your hospitality, so I thought if I slept beside the river no one would be troubled by my presence. But I heard your children laughing this afternoon, and I was curious about what made them so happy. It was frogs, can you believe it? Tiny little green frogs, with black eyes and yellow stripes down their backs. The children were racing them at the riverbank. They had even named them.” He laughs at the memory, looking up at Guen with an almost puppyish grin as though inviting him to share the joke. Guen just stares, even more nonplussed than before.
“I asked them to explain the rules of the game to me, and that was when your people found me,” the boy smiles, wholly unafraid. “Might I ask what it is you are planning to do with me?”
Until the boy began talking, Guen was planning on scaring him into ratting on whichever lord sent him to spy, and if that did not work, to hurt him until he talked. He is a young man himself, scarcely into his twenties and still missing his father who died unexpectedly the previous year, but he is a strong and capable leader, and he guards fiercely those whom he love. Since taking the chief’s position in his father’s place, he has done everything in his power to protect his village both from the raiding horsemen and thieves that came to pillage in the night, and from the local nobility who have made it a custom to take whatever they desire from both the homes and the storehouses of the poor. This red-haired boy would not have been the the first man Guen has hurt, or even killed, in his ever more desperate determination to protect his own.
But though this boy is young, he does not seem easily frightened, and he is looking into Guen’s eyes with more serenity than Guen himself has ever possessed, and he is speaking with the open surety of one speaking to a friend, and now Guen does not know what he plans to do at all.
“If you were not sent here by a master,” he hears himself saying, “then why are you here?”
“I have been traveling a few years now,” the boy replies readily, reaching up absently with one hand to wind a bright ribbon of hair between his fingers as he talks.
“I am trying to find people willing to follow me—good people, people who are tired of the world as it is and want to bring about a new peace. I need an army, you see, because it seems men do not listen very well unless you have an army.”
The suspicious anger that had been simmering in the crowd when Guen arrived has mostly dissipated now, replaced by absolute confusion. Guen is not in much better shape, but he tries to hide his bafflement from his people. He knows they are staring equally at both him and this red-haired lunatic, now.
“And what do you plan to do with that army, once you get it?” He asks. He means to sound mocking, but he is dismayed to realize as he asks the question that he is honestly curious to know the answer. The boy has not moved, and Guen is very tall standing over him, but somewhere during the course of this bizarre conversation the power dynamic has shifted. He feels off-balance, shaken by this boy who sits in the dust and has the knuckles of a fighter but the face of a child and who refuses to behave like any other man Guen has ever known.
The boy shrugs as though the answer is obvious.
“I will become king,” he says.
Chapter 3: III. Guen
In which Hiryuu tastes tea for the first time.
“All right,” Guen says, leaning across the little fire guttering in its pit to hand his guest a cup of tea. He pauses to pour out a cup for himself too, then sits back with its steadying warmth curled between the palms of his hands.
“Let’s try this again. Explain.”
The red-haired boy does not immediately respond. Instead, he continues to look around the hut with obvious interest, examining the blank walls, the coarse cloth covering the window, and the plain dirt floor with equal amounts of inordinate enthusiasm. Guen bristles a little, not sure whether to be embarrassed by the boy’s interest in his living quarters or not. His position as head of his village does not mean he is not poor; on the contrary, it perhaps means he is poorer than he otherwise would be, for he has followed his father’s example in using all he has to try to improve the lives of those who look up to him. He has no furniture aside from a wooden crate he stores his few personal possessions in and a lumpy straw-filled pallet he uses as a bed, currently bundled untidily in a corner along with some animal pelts he keeps for additional warmth in winter. He has set out a thin mat of woven grass on the floor to use as a table for his teapot and the cups, and the fire helps make the barren room feel cozier, but he is not used to entertaining.
It is a stroke of good fortune that he even has two cups to share with his guest instead of a single kettle; he only owns the cups due to a momentary lapse in reason a few years back when he purchased the set from a traveling peddler. They cost him more money than he could afford to spend after that summer’s weak harvest, but he had been young, and at the time he had the vague hope of soon having a wife to share tea with.
He sits now in his empty hovel, watching this red-haired lunatic gawp at the dried herbs strung from the splintery rafters over their heads, and has a moment to reflect a little sullenly on some specifics of how his life has disappointed him so far.
“Talk,” he says, more gruffly than he meant to, but his tone catches the boy’s attention at last, and he stops his staring.
“You have a lovely house,” the boy says as though apologizing for his distraction, blowing lightly on his tea before raising the cup to his lips. He takes a sip, and his face lights up, any trace of contrition gone.
“Ah! This is delicious, what is it?”
“… The tea? It is only the local variety we grow in our gardens. Or do you mean you have not drunk tea at all before?”
The boy shakes his head happily, sipping again and letting the liquid linger upon his tongue before swallowing it.
“My father did not drink it; we had no garden, and he was too poor to buy any, I think. You must show me the making of it before I leave.”
“The brewing isn’t hard,” is all Guen can think at first to say to that, regarding the strange red-headed boy perplexedly. He clears his throat. If his strange guest will not volunteer further information, Guen will have to pry it out of him.
“Answer me something.”
“Anything you wish.”
Guen eyes the boy narrowly over the top of his cup, and the boy smiles serenely back.
“Are you really determined to be a king?”
“Not a king,” Hiryuu corrects him immediately. “The king. If we are to have any peace and stability in this land, the people must be unified under a single ruler. Then there will be no more bandits raiding villages such as yours, no more lords quarreling over land, no more lawlessness taking refuge in the conflicting laws of a hundred princes. When I am king, I will be able to set everything right, and stop all the discord. Then everyone will be able to be as happy as those children playing by the river today, you see?”
“If it were as easy as that, then I myself would be King and everyone would be happy already,” Guen scoffs, and he tips his head back to lean against the warped wall of his hut. The boy lifts his eyebrows slightly, a faint smile on his lips.
“What is stopping you?”
“The fact that it’s an utterly absurd plan, for one. No one would want to follow me anywhere. And I have to stay here to protect my people. If I left them to try to make myself a king, they would be easy prey for the folk that want to use them. And I would be dead within the week anyway, either stoned as a madman or silenced because my ambition got one prince or another just a little too scared. I’m honestly amazed you’re alive at all, the way you talk.”
The boy shrugs.
“I am not easy to kill.”
“Is that how you got those marks on your hands?”
The boy blinks and looks down at his left hand, flexing and curling the fingers and wincing a little as though surprised to discover they hurt. He nods slowly, considering.
“Some men tried to waylay me upon the road a few days ago, and I fought back. I’m good at fighting.”
“And you killed them with only your hands?”
“I didn’t kill all of them, only the ones who would not stop. I let the others run. And anyway I didn’t want to kill them,” he adds in slightly aggrieved tones, “but they definitely wanted me dead, and I cannot die yet. Not before I am king.”
“You see!” Guen flings his hands in the air in exasperation. “By all the gods in all the heavens can you not hear yourself?”
The boy flushes slightly, his eyes flashing in the firelight.
“I love humanity,” he insists defensively, clutching his tea cup to his chest. He seems stung out of his calm for the first time. “All of it. Even the bad people are not wholly bad, you know, and I would have talked to them and helped them if I could. But they would not listen, and I did not have time to make them. Not yet. That is why—”
“—Why you must be king, yes, yes, I know.”
The boy subsides and takes a slightly wounded gulp from his cup. Guen sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose and closing his eyes briefly. He cannot remember if he had a headache already, coming back from the fields worn-out and thirsty, but he certainly has one now.
“Look here. I invited you into my home not because I want you here, but because I was afraid if you said much more outside where everyone could hear you, they’d kill you themselves. We don’t trust strangers here, and you’re the strangest I’ve ever seen.”
The boy is silent, but he wilts just a little, staring at the fire. Guen suddenly feels like a cad for making him unhappy, and he shakes his head, trying to regroup the thoughts this boy has so effectively scattered.
“I do not believe you are crazy, truly,” he says at last, running one hand distractedly through his dark hair. “I actually think you’re pretty brave—foolish, but brave, to believe so strongly in what you are trying to do. I just think you should know that what you are planning is impossible. I believe you when you say you are trying to do good, and that’s more than I can say for most men, but you are only going to get yourself killed if you keep on as you have been.”
“And you will not, chief of the village?” The boy lifts his eyes to Guen’s face and he is very serious now, his grave expression startling on so young a face. “You spoke of spies, in the village square. You thought I was sent by men of power, yet you threatened me. And you think yourself safe?”
“I—” Guen stops, swallows.
“I am doing what I must to protect my people,” he says at last. The boy smiles again, very slightly, but his expression is far too close to pity for Guen’s liking.
“You think you are, yes. And it is true: if you stay here, you can protect your people. A little while—one year, maybe, or ten. Or a month, a week, a day. But you will create no real change, chieftain. You said you have repulsed some few attacks, saved a handful of your friends from starvation or slavery. But the attacks will keep coming, and coming, and all you are doing is stopping them a little while; you are not stopping the men who order them. Sooner or later, someone will tire of your small, stubborn fight, and they will destroy you. It might come as torches flung in the night, or as armed men flooding down from the castle with long swords, or maybe you will be lucky and only those most guilty of treasonous action will be slaughtered—you, of course, and anyone else who has stood by you. The rest will be left to cower and starve and scrape out what poor living they can, but they will never be free. And what little good you have managed to do here will be forgotten as though it never was. Is that all your blood is worth?”
Guen bites at his lower lip, rolling his empty cup between his hands. He does not look up.
“You have seen this happen before,” he says, very quietly.
“Yes. Many times. And I have tried to stop it, alone, but nothing has worked; men ignore me, or jeer at me, or they try to kill me also. And so, yes—you may mock me like the others do but I will gather an army so that they cannot refuse to listen to me any more.”
“It is not as simple as you make it sound, gathering an army,” Guen says. “The poor are too frightened to do anything, and the powerful are pleased with the world as it is. No one wants anything badly enough to follow a crazy child to war simply because he says he wants peace. Who will you find to follow you?”
The boy sets his teacup down very carefully on the mat, and then looks up at Guen with wide, guileless eyes. His hair is soft and bright as a hearthfire, flaming in the gloaming dark.
“I had hoped,” he says, “that I had found you.”
Chapter 4: I. Hiryuu
In which heaven weeps.
It rained thirty days and thirty nights when Hiryuu left the heavens.
The people of the village where the old man lived were at first gladdened by the rainfall, for the last of the spring planting had just been completed the week before and rain so soon was a lucky sign. As the days drew on and still the sky did not clear, however, their joy turned first to consternation, then to dismay, then to fear. The livestock sickened and died, nesting birds drowned in their nests, and the new-planted seeds rotted in the ground. The river where the old man liked best to fish, already swollen with the last of the melted snows, rose dangerously high, gouging at the soft earth of its banks and swallowing it like a hungry beast. When one of the huts closest to the river’s edge vanished on the thirtieth night, fallen into the flood and lost along with the children and poor mother who had been sleeping within, the people’s fear flared into terror. They cursed both heaven and the gods who dwelt there, shaking their fists towards the sunless sky.
“What have we done?” They wailed. “Why will the rain not cease? Why are we being punished?”
Once, the god-speaker who dwelt in the house upon the hill came to reassure them, raising his voice to be heard over the endless rush of water. His eyes were very dark beneath his unshorn hair.
“This is not a punishment,” he insisted. “There is a quarrel in the heavens, and the gods are weeping. Go back to your homes and await the sun.”
The people did not listen. Instead they jeered, and threw stones, and chased the holy man away with blood streaming down his face.
The old fisherman alone was silent. While the rest of his village raged against the heavens, he collected his net and his wide-brimmed hat and his coat, and he walked down to the river’s edge. The water ran too swiftly for his little coracle, for he had no longer the strength in his arms to fight such a strong current, but fishing was his livelihood, and he hoped at least to snare something from the flood. Not for the first time, he wished for a son to help him with his boat and nets, but he had no children and his wife had died many years ago.
When he arrived at the riverbank he cast his nets, but he caught nothing from the flood. Three times he cast, and three times he pulled the nets in empty. The wind changed, driving the rain into his eyes despite his wide hat, the raging river roiling with the strength of the storm. At last exhausted, the fisherman resigned himself to a meager supper of rainwater and dried fish long since gone stale, and he put his back to the river, struggling his slow way through the tall reeds and rushes to his home.
It was then that he found the child.
It was a small boy-child, looking scarcely a year old, sleeping in the rushes at the riverside and drenched with rain. When the old man reached out to touch its sleeping face with the back of one tentative hand its skin was very cold, but it slept as peacefully as though it were in a warm bed at its mother’s side. It was wrapped in red robes of some fine woven stuff the fisherman had never seen before, stitched with gold and vermillion, and there was a golden ornament hung on a chain around the boy’s tiny throat.
Cautiously, the fisherman set aside his nets and picked up the child, bundling it awkwardly in his arms. It stirred a little, curling in towards his warmth, and he stood only a moment, considering. Then he shrugged off his rain cape and wrapped the child in its ugly folds, concealing the fine clothing, and the medallion he stowed deep inside his bag of tackle. Once this was done, he hurried home with the child held close to his heart, his nets left forgotten upon the marshy ground.
He had hoped to reach the privacy of his hut without being spotted by the other villagers, but his neighbors easily spotted the boy’s bright hair, as red as its hidden clothing.
“What sort of fish is that you have caught?” The fisherman’s neighbors jeered, crowding around to stare. Some were amused by the fisherman’s find, but others were angry, and they shouted at the old man, some even taking up stones in their hands as they had when the god-speaker came.
“Already our winter stores are almost gone,” they raged, “and still the rain falls and turns all our planting to mold in the earth. Soon everything we have will be lost, and then we will starve; how could you bring us another mouth to feed?”
The fisherman shrugged, wrapping the sleeping child more snugly in his tattered cape.
“I could not leave him,” he said. “And anyway, he is not your mouth to feed; he is mine.“
There was a strength in his voice that none there had ever heard before, and he stood as firmly as a man half his age, meeting their eyes unafraid. When he took a step forward the villagers melted aside, allowing him to pass through their midst on his way to his tiny hut. They watched silently as he entered the dark house and shut the door behind him.
That night, the rain stopped.
Chapter 5: II. Hiryuu
In which Hiryuu grows up.
The fisherman’s foundling boy was very like a fish himself in his baby days, quick and pale and round-eyed. His curiosity was forever getting him into mischief, from crawling too close to the neighbor’s dog and nearly being savaged to eating a poisonous berry and falling so deathly ill the old fisherman nearly went frantic. The berry had been red as the boy’s own hair, and all the other children in the village knew better than to eat those fruits, but the boy had not. The fisherman’s more unkind neighbors laughed at his distress and called the child a half-wit and a simpleton, saying its own mother must have realized it was slow and had left it beside the river to die, and perhaps the old man ought to do the same.
“He is very young,” a sympathetic mother told the fisherman consolingly when went to beg her for advice. “If you only teach him, he will learn.”
The fisherman at first doubted how well a boy that young could learn anything, but his foundling child grew quickly, shooting up like a young bamboo stalk, slim and graceful and serene. Only two days after he recovered from swallowing the poison he began to pull himself up to standing using various bits of furniture in the fisherman’s hut, wobbling and beaming and looking very proud of himself. His hair, which had been mere wisps when the fisherman first found him three weeks ago, had now grown so long it curled into his eyes.
His first word was Hiryuu.
At first the old fisherman tried not to think of that as an omen—babies babbled about the strangest things, he knew, so why not dragons, why not gods? But he could never quite forget the gold medallion he kept hidden in his bag of tackle; he could not go a day without remembering the red robes, wrapped now in oilcloth and buried in the corner of his house’s earthen floor. Robes as red as sunrise; as red as his foundling’s curling hair.
He named the boy Hiryuu. When he first called Hiryuu by his name, his foundling son looked up at him with eyes widened by a peculiar mix of surprise and delight. But then he laughed, and he never answered to any other name. The other villagers muttered about impiety and blasphemy, but the old fisherman ignored them. It was not a humble name, true; but despite his humble beginnings this child was not a humble child.
Hiryuu grew up merry and gentle, quick to laughter and eager to learn all the fisherman could teach him: about fishing, about people, about his own long life. From the moment he could speak, he never stopped asking questions. He was always eager to please, and his good temper, willingness to help others, and easy smile won the reluctant affections of more than a few of the villagers. When he was still small he helped his foster father by collecting worms for fishhook bait, and as he grew he eagerly moved onto more complex work: net-mending, catch-hauling, cleaning and stringing what fish were caught and hanging them to smoke. He never seemed discontented with his simple life, but twelve years after the great rains the fisherman and his boy sat together in the fisherman’s doorway after supper, watching the fireflies glimmering into life as twilight fell, and Hiryuu sighed so quietly the fisherman barely heard him.
“I have stayed as long as I could,” he sighed, and when the fisherman turned to look at his boy he saw that although Hiryuu was smiling, there were tears in his eyes.
The fisherman felt a cold beyond the soft night-chill settle in his bones, but he tried not to let his distress show.
“What is wrong, Hiryuu?” He asked.
“Oh, there is nothing wrong. It is only that I have been very happy here,” the boy replied, leaning his head against the fisherman’s thin shoulder. “Perhaps too happy. I did not expect it to be so hard to leave.”
“You do not have to worry about leaving for many years yet, surely,” the fisherman said. “You are still young, my boy.”
“I am old enough,” Hiryuu countered gently. “Human lives are so short, after all. I have indulged myself long enough. My goal has always been to make others happy, not only myself, but still I have stayed here with you. ”
“You have made me happy,” the old fisherman said, but Hiryuu only shifted a little against his shoulder and said nothing.
The fisherman took a deep breath.
“Come inside, then, Hiryuu. I have something of yours that I have kept safe and hidden for you all these years. It is time, I think, that you have it back.”
Chapter 6: III. Hiryuu
In which Hiryuu leaves home.
The sky was very bright and clear, the day that Hiryuu left the fisherman's house.
The fisherman walked his foundling to the edge of the village. He walked slowly these days, but Hiryuu was careful to keep pace with him. The golden medallion that he had worn as an infant in the rushes—that the fisherman had returned to him at last, with trembling fingers—he wore now around his neck. It gleamed and flashed against his chest as he walked.
The fisherman halted a few paces beyond the last of the houses, just far enough to ensure privacy, and Hiryuu turned to say goodbye. He was taller now than his foster father, boyish still but with the promise of the beauty he would have as an adult shadowing the edges of his face.
"You have been very kind to me," Hiryuu told the old man, smiling earnestly. His hair had grown long, but still it curled, as soft and bright as a hearthflame. It has never been cut, the fisherman thought suddenly, and he ached.
Yesterday, he thought, he was a child. Now, he is almost a man. He has grown too quickly. My own father told me the same, when I became a man, and I laughed at him.
"Where will you go?" He asked his son.
Hiryuu shrugged lightly, flinging his arms wide.
"Anywhere and everywhere! The world is so very wide, and I want to know it all. I want to meet the people who live here, to see how they live, to speak with them. I want to make everyone as happy as you have made me."
"I wish I were young enough to go with you," the fisherman said sadly. Hiryuu stepped forward and embraced him, his slim arms still very much those of a boy, barely beginning to harden with a man's strength. His hair was soft against the side of the old man's face. The fisherman held him tightly, feeling that fast young heartbeat dancing against his shoulder.
"You have done your part," Hiryuu whispered into the fisherman's ear. "You have done enough, and more than enough. Now is time for you to rest and to enjoy the rewards of your charity. Heaven will watch over you kindly, all the rest of your days, because of the love you gave me when I was alone."
"It was not a hard thing, to love you," the fisherman replied, his voice breaking a little despite himself, and when Hiryuu pulled back out of the hug he gave the fisherman a last, small smile.
"Be well, father," he says, "and thank you."
His boy's voice was very kind, but there was a resonance in it that the old man had never heard before, a power yet unsheathed but splendid as the sun. This is the voice of one who will rule men's hearts, he thought, but the thought did not frighten him. He always knew this foundling child was meant for greater things than mere net-mending or line-reeling.
Hiryuu leaned down to shoulder his pack, graceful as a willow tree stooping to water, and then he turned and walked away. It was very simple in the end, his going. He walked lightly, his eyes and his heart filled with the wide world lying open before him, and he did not turn back. Even with his aging eyes the fisherman was able to see him as he went by the light of the sun upon his fiery hair, dwindling like an ember into the dusk. He stood in the doorway a long time, watching his boy walk away.
Never before had Hiryuu called him father, and it was by this final kindness more than anything that he knew he would never see him again.
Chapter 7: IV. Guen
In which Guen receives bad news.
Guen wakes with a sharp gasp, shaken from sleep by frantic hands, and when opens his eyes the world is still dark with pre-dawn stillness. He startles up, hand stammering to his side where his sword lies unsheathed.
"It's Ki-suk," the shadowy figure crouched over him says quickly, pulling away, and Guen blinks, breathing hard. His throat feels full of grit, parched with exhaustion.
"What time is it?" he rasps.
"You've been asleep two hours," Ki-suk replies, and Guen groans, scrubbing his hands over his face. The movement drags at the newly-bound gash on his left shoulder and he winces.
"Then why in heaven's name could you not let me—"
"It is the King," Ki-suk hisses, and Guen freezes.
"A boy came into camp five minutes ago. He says he is one of the scullery lads from the castle; he crawled out through the kitchen waste drain to escape and stole a horse to get here. It died beneath him five miles out and he ran the rest of the way. The men are giving him something to drink right now, but before he collapsed he said we need to mobilize back immediately. He said they've turned on us—Gi-hen, Seung, even Eun-bi. They must have been planning this a long time, waiting for when we had our backs turned. They arrived at the walls three days ago. Gods only know if they've already broken through."
"No," Guen whispers blankly, stupidly, but then he lurches into action, flinging off the cloak he had been using as a blanket. The night air is so cold it is almost painful, but he can barely feel it.
Small uprisings led by the ambitious and discontented—by men emboldened, ironically enough, to seek power after the example of Hiryuu's own success—have not been uncommon in Hiryuu's kingdom these last three years. Guen has spent much of his time of late riding out to quell rebellions and to hear complaints, and as the King's strong sword-hand and respected second he has had to grow accustomed to spending more time outside the castle walls than in them. He is a powerful man these days. But very rarely does he need to take so many men with him from the castle guard, and this campaign had been kept a close secret known only by a few of Hiryuu's inner circle at court. Even as Guen snatches for his gear, sleep still blearing the edges of his eyes, his mind is racing over faces and names, wondering which of these few was the spy who sent word to the traitorous lords that Hiryuu was left undefended.
"Did anyone else get out?" He buckles on his swordbelt with fumbling fingers, pulling it tight. Ki-suk shakes his head.
"The boy did not seem to think so. It happened fast. He said he was only able to escape because he was small enough to fit through the tunnel."
"I told him," Guen says bleakly, swaying a little where he stands. Two hours, he thinks. It is nowhere near enough rest, not after a week's march and eight solid days of skirmish and battle culminating in his wounding the previous evening. He has eaten nothing but a single mouthful of bread in three days; has not slept more than minutes at a time in six. The men he commands are not much better off. "I knew we should have left a stronger garrison with him. I tried to tell him so, but he would not hear of it, he wanted us to go to the people where we were needed. And I did not press the issue because even I thought the danger was not so near, yet. I was a fool, even more than him. Where is the boy now?"
Ki-suk takes him to where the child is huddled on the ground, wrapped in one of the men's cloaks and gnawing at a heel of bread someone managed to scrounge up for him. He is more alert than Guen had been expecting, and when Guen asks for his story it is as Ki-suk reported. All around them the war-camp mills like a kicked ant-nest, men scrambling to make ready to march.
"Did you see the King?" Guen rasps, not sure what answer he is hoping for. It is the last question he asks, and the hardest. "Before you escaped. Did you see—"
"It was the King who had the idea of sending me down the hole," the boy snuffles, barely pausing in his chewing enough to garble the reply. "He told me to get somewhere safe, and to tell you what was happening, if I could find you. And he said you would be very angry with him."
Guen laughs at that—actually laughs, and it hurts like a knife at his throat. When Ki-suk returns out of the dark, leading a rangy sorrel by its bridle, Guen accepts the reins with a curt nod of thanks. He is not familiar with this steed, as his own was killed five days earlier and he has since gone by foot, but to lead the race back to the castle he must ride.
The pain in his shoulder tears open when he hauls himself up into the saddle and he bites down hard upon his lower lip to stifle a moan. The night is bitterly cold, but his arm suddenly rushes hot with new blood pulsing from his wound. Cursing himself furiously he closes his eyes just a moment and forces the pain back, trying to think clearly.
Of all the times, he reproaches himself. Of all the times to catch a blade, you had to pick now.
"They will have moved part of their force at least between us and the castle," Ki-suk says from where he stands at Guen's stirrups. Guen exhales and opens his eyes again, searching out his friend in the dark. Ki-suk's face is ashen in the moonlight, his eyes like cut holes. "We will have to fight our way through. It took a week to come this far south even before the fighting began, and we were fresh then, and unwounded."
He knows the truth of what Ki-suk is so bleakly reminding him: that it is too late, that it must be too late—that it will take at least two days of marching at a faster pace than he and his exhausted men can possibly maintain to come within fighting distance of the walls. That once they do come close enough to fight, none will have the strength left to win the struggle, he least of all. But still: he must try.
For the sake of his King, for the sake of the bloody-knuckled boy who drank tea in his hut all those years ago, he will fight until his heart stops.
Chapter 8: I. Shuten
In which Shuten discovers peace disagrees with him.
When Shuten first hears of the self-proclaimed dragon king, he is curious.
He is kind as a child, a merchant tells him as he counts out his change for a new pair of boots.
He is deadly as a sword’s edge, a cavalry officer slurs at him in a smoky common-room, as fierce as a storm in the mountains.
It is all anyone can talk about, at first: the child-king with the hair like fire, the god king, the dragon boy. It is the poor people in wattle villages that Shuten’s regiment marches through that seem to love the king the most, and he sees more than one crudely fashioned shrine depicting a figure with red hair on his journeying. He stops at one once, but there is nothing there really to give him a clue about what the dragon king is truly like: the face is lopsided and the body is lumpy, the flat hands positioned in an approximation of the sign for peace. He peers at the flat shell eyes stuck into the clay face for a moment, then snorts, and wanders off in search of some supper at one of the campfires. He does take the time to pocket the few cheap coins that had been left as offerings at the statue’s feet.
Shuten does not call himself a soldier even though he has spent more than half of his life following Lord Seung’s banner; he prefers the term “fighter,” for that he has been before he ever joined the army. He can not remember his mother, nor his father; the former died of starvation during a hard winter when he was four, and his father died fighting under Seung’s command even before that. His father’s fate should have embittered Shuten to the military life, but when he was seven years old a traveling regiment barracked in his village and he had realized immediately that this was his chance to escape his wretched existence as an orphaned street urchin. He spent a day and a night spying on the soldiers’ routines, and then he offered his services as an errand boy to any man who would listen to him. At first the soldiers drove him away with tossed stones or, worse, with laughter and jeering. But he was persistent, and some of the men were amused by his rude aggression and smart tongue. Eventually his stubbornness paid off and he began getting work hauling water from the river, or washing dirty linens, or performing any other sundry task the men considered undesirable. When the regiment’s captain asked him if he knew how to polish leather, he promptly lied that he did and proceeded to very confidently ruin the man’s tall riding boots. But by refusing to leave and by being voraciously willing to do whatever was asked of him—unless he thought an order insulting, in which case he on more than one occasion flew into a kicking, shouting rage—he made himself a familiar installation among Seung’s men. When the regiment moved on after the worst of winter had passed, Shuten went with them.
And now, more than half a lifetime of fighting later, Shuten learns that Lord Seung himself now bows before the throne of an upstart boy king whom hardly anyone has seen but whom everyone has an opinion about. Shuten has never cared about who he fights for before, and he tries to tell himself that he is not about to begin now; as long as he is still fed, and clothed, and given both enemies to cut down and enough coin to do as he wishes and drink what he pleases, what does it matter if everyone else says the world is changed? Everyone else has an opinion about the dragon boy, but Shuten has never really fought for anyone but himself.
But then the fighting stops.
The people in the wattle villages sing about the dragon king who has brought peace where no one thought peace was possible, and Shuten’s regiment is pulled back to Seung’s capitol to be reassigned as palace guards, or as a peacekeeping force to patrol the streets and keep the citizens safe. Now that the warring princes and lords have all sworn loyalty to their new king, there are no more enemies to fight, and for the first time in his life Shuten is left without a battle to wage. While on duty he stalks through the city streets with his spear hefted over one shoulder, and when off duty he drifts from tavern to bar to brothel to spend his pay, not having anything else to spend it on—no aged parents to care for, no wife to surprise with beautiful gifts, no home to fill with comforts. The women in the brothels begin dying their hair red, and wooden pendants carved with dragon symbols are peddled on every street corner. On the first anniversary of the boy king’s coronation day, the city celebrates by waving flowers in the streets, and dancing, and feasting. Priests in red robes celebrate by extolling the god king’s virtues as they burn incense in massive, specially commissioned dragon-shaped braziers that flank Seung’s palace gates; the sweet stink of the burning lingers in the city for days.
Shuten celebrates by getting into three fistfights for the hell of it, getting drunk on free wine, and spending the rest of both his day and his money in his favorite brothel.
Hiryuu is beautiful as the sun, the women gossip in the dark over his head that night, when they think him asleep. He is bright as the morning.
Shuten sneers to himself, and just like that he is certain that he hates the man. It is not a revelation; in truth it is more like a relief. He is more used to hating people than being interested in them.
Chapter 9: I. Abi
In which Abi does not have a happy childhood.
Abi is not his father’s eldest son, but he is his mother’s. This is because most men take only one wife, according to law, but Abi’s father is Lord Eun-bi, the Splendor-of-the-Eastern-Heaven, the Lord-of-Spear-and-Sword, and thus may do as he wish. Eun-bi has thirteen wives, by the time Abi is born, but Abi’s mother is his youngest and his favorite. Abi is not always certain she is his favorite of his thirteen mothers—Lady Li-he is very pretty, to be sure, but she also has a quick temper, and she does not sing as well as fat Lady Chun or sneak Abi unwatered wine from the table like Lady Hana. Sometimes Abi wonders what she is good for at all, other than wearing jewelry at his father’s banquets.
On special days, though, Li-he comes to the nursery where Abi is kept and sweeps him up into her silken-sleeved arms, and she coos over him and fusses over him and he gets to spend the rest of the day smelling like the expensive perfume she wears. These days are Abi’s favorite, as no one else ever dares to touch him except the palace nurses, whom he hates, and his crowd of half-siblings, whom he despises. These days are also the only days when Abi gets to see his splendid, marvelously terrifying father up close. Li-he never so much as looks at Abi unless Lord Eun-bi is in the room, and it is only when she takes him to audiences with his father that she carries Abi on her hip through the palace corridors to the throne-room, where she kisses Abi and calls him cygnet and runs her painted nails lovingly through his dark hair. And Lord Eun-bi, who is normally so frightening, will favor Abi with a smile, and maybe even give him a trinket as a present, and he will comment to Lady Li-he over Abi’s head that The boy looks more like you every day, my love, and Abi will feel the purring of his mother’s voice against his back as she replies: Yes, my Lord, but he is wise also, and beloved by the court, and the other children go in awe of his anger, and in all these things he honors you.
Abi leaves these meetings proud that he is as terrifying as his father, but also glad that he looks like his mother. He would hate to have long moustaches like Lord Eun-bi.
Lord Eun-bi’s eldest son is nearly thirty years old, and his name is Tuen. Abi is at first not even aware that they are brothers, because of course Tuen does not stay in the nursery where the palace children are kept, and he does not sit at the children’s table in the banquet hall, or join in the wild games Abi plays in the nursery garden. It is Lady Hana who tells him about Tuen one hot afternoon as she enjoys the blue shade of the plane tree by the nursery duck pond, cup in hand and more than a few bottles already rolling empty beneath her chair. Most of the wives avoid the nursery like Abi’s own mother does, but Hana has told Abi more than once that she likes children. Privately, Abi thinks it is silly for her to say she likes children when she has none of her own, but he never tells her so.
“… You’re luckier than you know, to be his favorite,” Hana says, tipping her cup in Abi’s direction. Abi, sprawled on his stomach in the grass, patiently waiting for her to leave so he can filch whatever wine she leaves behind, is confused.
“The Lord Eun-bi’s, of course,” Hana chortles, the sweat glittering on her brow even in the shade. “Your mother has worked hard to make sure the old man loves you best, and she’s done a fine job of it, too. Everyone knows that he’s only waiting for you to grow up a little before he announces you’re his heir. Thirty-eight children and you’re the one who gets the crown. I don’t mind, but I might warn you to watch out for Kura. She’s always griping to her handmaids about how Tuen should have been made heir, when she thinks no one else can hear her. She’ll get in trouble for it one day.”
Abi has never had anything but contempt for Lady Kura, his father’s oldest wife, so he ignores the advice. But Tuen’s name catches his interest. Tuen is the captain of Eun-bi’s cavalry, and he carries a red-painted spear and a sword with a lion-head hilt, and Abi has secretly idolized him for years.
“What does Kura have to do with Captain Tuen?”
“He’s her son, isn’t he? The Lord Eun-bi’s first boychild, who would have been named heir no question if Lady Li-he had not come along a month before his eighteenth birthday. At the time we all assumed Tuen would be named heir at his coming-of-age, but once the old man was smitten it was obvious he was hoping to get a son from Li-he instead. And now here you are, and she’s very clever, your mother. She knows what she’s doing, holding you on her lap in front of him, telling him tales of how lordly you are, ordering the maids to do your hair up so you look more like her. I hope it does pay off for her, I really do. I’ve never been one for games of that sort, but gods’ blessings on those who are; they make life more fun for the rest of us.” She chuckles again, and drains her cup. After she leaves, Abi is disappointed to discover that she emptied all the bottles, and retreats up the plane tree both to sulk and to mull over everything she said. The revelation that Tuen is his brother is both staggering and mortifying. Abi has always hated his various brothers and sisters either because they bully him or because they try too hard to win his favor, but he has also spent entire days pretending to be Tuen in various adventure games around the palace nursery grounds, and his face burns hot at the memory.
The next evening at supper he can barely keep his concentration enough not to spill the soup out of his bowl. He is too distracted by watching his older brother-who-is-not-his-brother. Tuen sits as easily at the officers’ table as he ever does, the torchlight catching in his beautiful eyes, his long hands graceful as he gestures and makes a comedic face while he tells a story. Everyone seated near him laughs at the same time, and it is genuine laughter too; Abi can tell, after growing up in his father’s court, when a person is faking amusement and when they are not. He can also tell when a man is laughing to be cruel. His father was the one who taught him that trick.
As he watches Tuen, Abi is afraid for the first time in his life. He had never considered before that he might have any rival for his place in the palace, but ever since Hana tipsily spilled her gossip to him he has realized that he wants, with a hunger so deep it makes his stomach hurt, to deserve his father’s love, which he has always accepted as his due. His mother cannot help but love him, naturally, since he is her only son, and the nurses love him because he is as pretty as his mother, and Hana loves him because she thinks his irreverence is amusing, and his few younger siblings love him because they are stupid and do not know any better, but his father—his father has so many sons, and so many daughters, and Abi is astonished that he has never thought of that before. Most of them are horrid, it is true, but now there is Tuen—tall Tuen, wise Tuen, Tuen whose face and form are so perfectly balanced he could almost be one of the god-statues in the family shrine, whose wit draws admiration from all who speak with him, who is Eun-bi’s best horseman, who commands an entire company in battle and is never defeated, who does not have to share a room with four older brothers and submit to being bathed by old nurses and to leaving his father’s feasts early to go to bed even if he does not want to. Tuen makes perfection look effortless, Abi thinks with dismay, and how long will it be before their father realizes his mistake and gives Tuen the heirship instead? Li-he might be Eun-bi’s favorite wife, but how long will it be before Eun-bi inevitably realizes that Tuen is his favorite son?
All Abi’s life, men have bowed to him. Servants fall to their faces before his wrath—a trick he learned as a precocious toddler, to his vast amusement. Women fawn over him. The other children in the court squabble for his favor or watch him with sullen envy and don’t dare to beat him at any games. His stern-faced father never fails to smile at their rare meetings, and calls him little bright-eyes.
He is seven years old when he realizes that it is not the natural order of the world for this adoration to be his—that it is, in fact, utterly unnatural. But he decides, then and there, that if he must work to earn this love, to stay one step ahead of his numerous siblings, then so be it. He will never lose this feeling of being worshipped. Not for anything.
Chapter 10: II. Abi
In which Abi meets a man with red hair.
Abi is eleven years old when he steps out of his bedchamber one morning and nearly collides with a complete stranger. The presence of strange men in Lord Eun-bi’s palace is not really remarkable, as there is a constant flow of supplicants and delegations and neighboring nobility flocking in and out of the audience chamber, but Abi’s room is in the private royal quarters, far from his father’s throne-room. No one ever comes here except members of the royal family and their servants. Abi instinctively stiffens with his back to his door, his hand flying to the long-hilted dagger at his belt, and he stares up at the intruder, waiting for either a groveling apology or an assassin’s blade.
He gets neither.
“Good morning,” the stranger says brightly, stepping backwards out of Abi’s way. “What is your name?”
“You don’t know?” Abi says, stupidly. Everyone knows him. Even if they would not recognize his face, the jade ornament in his hair and the bright blue edging on his robes would give away his status as the Lord Eun-bi’s favored son. The stranger shakes his head.
“No. Should I?”
Then, misreading Abi’s silence: “If it is a secret, you do not have to tell me.”
Abi is not sure why he does not tell this man his name, as imagining the look on this man’s face when he realizes he is in the presence of Lord Eun-bi’s favorite son is thoroughly amusing. But instead, he takes a step away from his door and shakes his head. Perhaps it is because he has a nagging suspicion that his name would mean nothing to this person, and he does not want that suspicion confirmed.
“Tell me yours, instead,” he orders. The man courteously folds his hands into his ragged sleeves and bows. It is not a bow deep enough as that due to royalty, as he does not fully prostrate himself on the floor, but the very inappropriateness of the well-meant gesture makes Abi grin.
“I am Hiryuu,” the man says simply, his long red hair falling flame-bright over his shoulders. Abi is confused, because surely an elegant name like that belongs to someone a bit more regal looking than this vagabond, but he supposes that he could be a priest or some similarly holy man. He knows from one of Eun-bi’s foreign wives that some of the other clans worship dragons, after all.
He is about to ask what Hiryuu’s business is with Eun-bi when the gleam of yellow gold catches his eye. He must make some expression that betrays his interest, because the man laughs.
“Do you like it?” The man with the red hair asks, smiling, and then he bends down lower so Abi can see it better, pulling the pendant out of his shirt collar and holding it between pinched fingers. It dangles and spins, the pure gold of it flashing dizzily in the sunlight, reminding Abi of the goldfish in the garden pond. The dragon design is marvelously crafted, more beautiful than any carving Abi has seen in his father’s house, even better than the jade lions on the pillars, or the cranes on the walls. Dazzled and delighted, he reaches out to touch the pendant—and then stops, realizing his rudeness. But the man only laughs again. Normally, Abi would be outraged by anyone laughing at him, but somehow he does not mind this time. There is no mockery in the sound.
“I don’t have anything like it,” Abi admits, and he doesn’t mean to sound petulant but he very much does anyway. The man takes Abi’s hand and before Abi can snatch it away—he is startled into inaction, for no one ever touches him without permission in this house, not for years—Hiryuu sets the medallion in Abi’s open palm. It is a lot heavier than it looked, for all its delicate engraving. The metal warms quickly against his skin. It is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen.
“You don’t have anything like it because it was not made by human hands,” the man explains, looking pleased. “It is from heaven.”
Abi shoots him a skeptical look and pulls his hand away, even though he wants nothing more than to hold the pendant longer, marveling at it. It drops back to hang from the man’s slim neck, twisting a little with the force of the fall.
“I’m eleven years old,” Abi says. “I’m not interested in baby stories anymore.”
The man opens his mouth to reply but whatever he was going to say is lost when there is a sudden shout from behind him.
The red-haired man straightens up so fast Abi startles, and he turns around to wave a welcoming hand in the air.
“Hello, Guen. I’ve found myself another friend here already, see?”
Abi is not sure that he likes being called a friend by this red-haired stranger, but he does not know how to protest without sounding petty. He settles for folding his arms and drawing himself up regally as Guen approaches. He cannot quite hide his disdain as he examines this new arrival. He can now understand Hiryuu being here—his magnificent golden pendant all but confirms Abi’s theory that he is a high-ranking priest from some other clan—but the tall, broad-shouldered man stumping towards them up the hallway is clad in dirty white furs and rough homespun, his dark hair shaggy and uncombed and falling into his eyes. Abi has only seen a handful of peasants in his lifetime, and all of them only from a significant distance, but even so he knows one when he sees one. This man stands out against the jade and darkwood elegance of the palace like a weed in a rose garden.
“Last I checked we were here to meet with the Lord, not with his children,” Guen retorts, sparing barely a glance for Abi. “What on earth were you doing with him, anyway?”
“I thought I would explore the place a little while we waited,” Hiryuu admits, “and then I saw him admiring my medallion. So I thought—”
“You cannot go giving valuables away to just anyone who likes them,” Guen interrupts exasperatedly, and Abi glares up at him resentfully.
“I was not giving it away,” the red-haired man argues, but he looks a little sheepish as he tucks the pendant back beneath the collar of his tunic. Guen rolls his eyes and sets a firm hand at the red-haired man’s elbow.
“Eun-bi has returned, and he has agreed to see you. We need to go to the audience chamber now. You know how important it is that you make a good impression with him. His influence—”
“I know, Guen. I am coming,” Hiryuu says, and he glances down at Abi, giving the tiniest of waves goodbye.
Abi does not wave back. After the odd duo disappear around the corner, Abi makes his way down to the armory to collect his training sword before heading out to the parade grounds for his daily drills. He spends the day sparring and practicing his forms for a few hours before returning to the palace for a meal and a bath and then more hours of study in the library, where he argues philosophy with his tutor and practices his calligraphy, writing his own name neatly on his wax tablet again and again and imagining how it will look one day on official documents beside the red seal of his house. Abi son of Eun-bi, Lord of the Eastern Fire. He likes the look of the characters very much.
He does not tell anyone about his meeting with Hiryuu that morning. The red-haired priest and his peasant friend stay nearly a week, eating at the high table and spending long hours in private meetings with Eun-bi, but Abi never has the opportunity to talk with Hiryuu again, and he does not seek the man out. But when Hiryuu leaves, it is with nearly half of Eun-bi’s massive army, as well as a personal escort composed of Eun-bi’s highest ranking officers, and at their head is Tuen, bearing a letter signed by Eun-bi’s own hand that is meant to be delivered to the surrounding clans by Eun-bi’s own celebrated son. Lady Kura brags about it for weeks: about how it was her own son who was chosen by his father to be his messenger to the clans, and to serve as guard and herald for a god. For hadn’t the other wives heard that that strange boy with the crimson hair was a god? He had come from heaven to rule all the clans, and Eun-bi was going to be his right-hand man, and her son was already such very good friends with him. How good it would be, for their clan, to have a leader who is best of friends with a god.
Abi has never sought out Lady Kura’s company, but after Hiryuu leaves he quickly grows accustomed to spending all his time actively trying to avoid both her and the Lady Li-he, who stalks the palace halls with all the sour fury of a vengeful ghost, and who he knows would take out her temper on him if she could. Lady Kura’s talk has his nerves strained enough without having to humor his ambitious mother’s frustration, especially since his father has had no audiences with him since Hiryuu’s arrival, and even at mealtimes is always deep in discussion with his councilors and tacticians, sparing not even a glance for Abi. Do not fret, Abi-chan, Lady Hana tries to comfort him one evening, he has not forgotten you; he is only busy. Abi, far from being comforted, snaps at her to leave him alone and then spends a sleepless night pacing his room, a wreck of nervous energy. If he was performing his role better, he knows, his father could never feel too busy to include him. He doesn’t want his mother to tell him so, so he continues to dodge Li-he as best he can, but he knows it is the truth.
He does not dwell on the idea that Hiryuu is a god, or a dragon, or both, not even when his family’s ancestral shrines are dismantled and replaced with red dragon idols. Hiryuu had not looked like a god to him, but then again, Abi knows nothing about gods, really. He has never cared to. Instead, he throws himself into his studies and practices his sword forms until his palms blister, split open, and then callous over like leather. He starts trying to make conversation in the soldiers’ mess and in his father’s hall at mealtimes, mimicking Tuen’s friendly demeanor as best he can, but most people are too wary of him to talk long, and he soon gives up the uncomfortable effort. He tries to cheer himself up by practicing his father’s intimidating walk and his mother’s cool expressions in his vanity mirror and by making a game of replacing all his personal servants—men and women who have served him since his birth, chosen by Lady Li-he herself—with his favorites among the servants who serve his various siblings. The household servants are all cowed and in awe of him enough to accept the change in circumstances without protest, which he finds almost as amusing as his siblings’ simmering fury at the theft. Above all, he tries not to think about Tuen and Hiryuu—not to imagine them traveling alongside each other on the dusty road, Tuen laughing his bright laugh that makes everyone love him, and Hiryuu with his voice somehow grave and glad all at once, and his hair like leaping flames. He tries not to imagine how splendid and impressive they both will look, riding proudly up to the surrounding clans’ gates and declaring Hiryuu’s divine authority with Eun-bi’s army vast behind them. He tries not to imagine Hiryuu showing Tuen that golden medallion.
I was his friend first, is a secret he guards jealously, hoarding it like something precious to take out and look at only when no one else is watching.
Tuen might think he is his friend now. But I was first.
Chapter 11: II. Shuten
In which Shuten gets drunk on victory and does not enjoy it much.
The day they take Hiryuu castle, Shuten cheers as loudly as any man there, leaping through the shattered gates at the head of his battalion. There is very little actual killing to be done, once they are inside the walls, which is slightly disappointing. Most of the soldiers within the walls throw down their weapons instantly, and Shuten has to spend tedious time processing prisoners and searching rooms and gathering up enemy arms instead of actually fighting. He hates it. Simmering with frustrated adrenaline, he is jittery and even more irritable than usual, stalking through the halls like a wild creature.
He had been jubilant when his liege had without warning remustered the army, and his elation had only grown when he learned that they were leading an attack upon the famous King Hiryuu himself. It was not only Lord Seung, but a group of half a dozen disgruntled nobility that had come together to overthrow the boy they had so recently set on the throne. From what Shuten could gather from the evening camp gossip—for men at war swap stories just as freely as the women in peacetime do—it had turned out that the puppet king had not proven to be easily controlled after all, and now that the centralized government had been set up in a god’s name, a few of the princes and lords had finally realized that there was nothing stopping them from swooping in and taking the high throne for themselves except for fear of that self-same god.
Before he left the capitol, Shuten had enthusiastically taken part in the march on the crimson dragon temples, tearing down red banners and toppling statuary, chasing out the red-robed priests. He had taken great satisfaction, too, in knocking over one of those stinking dragon-shaped incense burners, sending it rolling across the ground, scattering bright embers over the paving stones where they hissed, bright red, and went dark. In Hiryuu’s castle, he cannot find anything similarly worth destroying, and it irks him. There are no statues, no shrines to the boy king’s hubristic vanity, not even a priest to terrorize. The castle is vast and beautifully constructed, but inside it is clean and sparse and that is all. It does not look like the home of a spoiled brat king, or even of a delusional boy who demands worship from others because he claims godhood. Shuten returns disgruntled to the main courtyard where all the prisoners are being guarded and when he hears his name yelled over the hubbub he follows the sound to his commanding officer. The older man has taken off his helmet and breastplate, but he looks to be in far better spirits than Shuten is.
“Shuten! This lot has been searched already, take seven others and march them down to the cellars, would you? Orders from high up say we are to lock them up there until sunrise.”
“Why, what’s at sunrise?”
His commander shrugs.
“Damned if I know. But there’s talk they’re going to execute the usurper then. Get going.”
Shuten pulls a face but he does as he is told, gathering up the first seven members of his regiment he can find and leading the way into the castle and down to the cellars. The entire time he walks he can scarcely bear to look at the prisoners he is escorting, disgusted by their cowardice. He almost feels sorry for the king, that his men so easily abandoned him and gave up the fight. Mostly he feels sorry for himself and the battle he was robbed of. There’s glory enough to be found in helping overthrow a god-king, he supposes, but it rankles uncomfortably when it is handed to you rather than seized.
The usurper, his commander had said. Shuten mulls that over. It does not quite seem fair to call Hiryuu an usurper when no one else sat on the high throne before him anyway. He realizes he is still, even now, thinking of Hiryuu as king, and that’s irritating as well.
When they finally reach the cellars he finds guards already there standing beside the doors; men from Lord Eun-bi’s force, which surprises him a little. Until now he hasn’t seen any of Eun-bi’s men up close, although on the second day of the siege he had glimpsed a tall, handsome man in cavalry leathers and Eun-bi’s deep blue livery, who could only have been Lord Eun-bi’s famous eldest son. He had been leading the assault on the gates, while Shuten had been one of the thousands trying to scale the high walls. He has heard plenty of rumors about Tuen and his excellence on the field, but Shuten thinks he could take him. He thinks he could take most people.
So far, he hasn’t been proven wrong.
“Five more prisoners for lock up,” he tells one of the guards. The man looks entirely disinterested with the news, but he does wrangle a ring of keys off his belt-“Got ‘em off the steward,” the guard supplies at Shuten’s quizzical look-and uses it to open the cellar door. There are already a dozen men packed inside the square stone room, their hands bound and their legs hobbled, but none make any move to escape, instead staying huddled among the jars, casks, and crates. The five prisoners Shuten was escorting walk equally meekly into the cellar-turned-cell, but that last overwhelming display of timidity is one too many for him. Shuten grabs the last man by the sleeve, unable to stop himself. The man looks up at him with a strange mix of fear and anger, and Shuten shakes him slightly.
“You,” he says. “Tell me the truth. Why didn’t you fight us? Why aren’t you fighting?”
“Hiryuu forbade it,” the man replies, and to Shuten’s astonishment there are tears in his eyes. “He said once the gate was broken, we were to surrender. He said he did not want any more men to die.”
Shuten scoffs, shoves the man forward so hard he nearly falls, and then stalks away, but the answer to his question has not cheered him any. What sort of king orders his own guard to stand down? Why have a guard at all, if you will not make use of them? He is kind as a child, whispers a memory at the edges of his mind, but he shoves it away angrily, striking the butt of his spear hard against the paving stones as he walks.
“Damn it,” he whispers. “Damn it, damn it, damn it.”
He joins the first victory celebration he can find, finding a spot at the revelers’ campfire and pouring himself a cup of whatever liquor they’ve stolen from the palace storerooms. After downing the entire cup in a single draught, he realizes that it is the best wine he has ever tasted—unsurprising, considering his usual fare is whatever drink is cheapest in whatever tavern is cheapest—but he does not enjoy it. He lingers over his fourth cupful, sullen and brooding while the revelers laugh and sing. Long live Lord Seung! some cheer. Some others sing to a tune Shuten does not recognize: Eun-bi reins o'er spear and sword/I shall not bow to other lord.
Shuten is not a fool. There is only one high throne in this palace, and Eun-bi and Seung are powerful men. He might not have had much fighting to do in taking the castle, but the battle is just as much about replacing Hiryuu as it is about overthrowing him. There will be much fighting to do, yet.
The thought, to his own dismay, does not cheer him. If anything, it makes him feel worse.
“Oi,” he slurs at last, poking his neighbor in the ribs. “Where’d they put the king?”
“Locked him up. In his chamber,” the man answers, swaying sleepily. “Hours ago.”
“Has anyone taken him something to drink?” He asks. A couple men stare at him stupidly, but most simply ignore him. Only one snorts into his cup. “What’s the point? He’ll be dead soon enough anyway.”
Shuten frowns, then marches over and snatches the man’s cup away, tipping its contents over the fire which flares up green for a few seconds as the alcohol burns. The soldier yelps in protest, but Shuten ignores him and grabs the jug, too.
“We’ll all be dead soon enough anyway,” he calls back over his shoulder as he stomps unsteadily out of the room. “Doesn’t mean we have to suffer before we go.”
Chapter 12: III. Shuten
In which Shuten meets the god-king.
Shuten has sobered up a little, but not much, by the time he finally finds the king’s bedchamber. There are guards posted outside the door, but once Shuten explains his purpose, disarms, and submits to a search he is allowed to carry the jug in to the king. The guards seem bored, disgruntled at being denied participation in the courtyard celebrations, and while their captain goes to open the king’s door for Shuten, the rest of the group go back to a dice game they were playing on the corridor’s wooden floor. Shuten has to step over their dice to enter the king’s room, and no one makes any effort to move aside to make his way easier. His heart races a little as the guard pushes the door open, but he tries not to show it.
“Oi, you’ve a visitor,” the guard announces through the partially open door, and then he looks at Shuten, jerking his head towards the door as invitation to enter. “Knock when you want to be let out,” the guard says, and then Shuten steps into the king’s bedchamber and stands for the first time in the presence of the god-king, as the door rasps shut behind him.
The king is sitting at the foot of his wide pallet bed, his hands folded peaceably in his lap but his back as straight as a soldier’s. Shuten’s first thought is that he looks like a kid. He is thinner than a king should be, and much younger. He is tall, too—Shuten can tell that much even though the king is sitting down, but Shuten is tall himself so he can’t say for sure who’s taller. The king is wearing a long white shift, probably an underrobe of some kind, which looks like it’s woven out of some expensive stuff Shuten can’t even begin to name—there’s no discoloration in the weave, nothing but pure white, unlike any fabric Shuten has ever seen before. His hair is a truly ridiculous shade of deep red, brighter and richer than any of the brothel girls’ dyed tresses, and it’s far longer than any of their hair was, too. That, at least, Shuten can recognize as a sort of royal affectation, because no humble man would ever let his hair grow to such ostentatious lengths. He knows this much because he himself has grown his hair out. It makes people stare, and Shuten has always liked being looked at.
There is nothing decorating the king’s bedroom walls, nor the floor, and no furniture beyond the bed and a small, low table. Four simple torch sconces are set into the jointed wooden walls, but they are empty, and the only light in the room comes from the quickly fading sunset beyond the wide windows. The bed itself has four pillars set at its corners, and a wooden framework over that suggesting a canopy of some kind, but whatever hangings had been there have been dragged away. The ceiling is very high, but in the waning light it only serves to make the room feel more oppressive, somehow, instead of open.
The king does not move beyond simply turning his head to watch Shuten, and there are no tears on his face, no outward signs of fear or lamentation. He looks tired, and curious, and confused by Shuten’s abrupt arrival, but for a moment Shuten wonders if he truly is simple, if he does not understand what has happened, what opening his castle to his enemies really means. If Shuten were a failed king, betrayed by his subjects and locked in his own castle, he is certain that he would not be sitting calmly in his bedroom.
But then he meets the king’s bright gaze, those keen eyes burning in that quiet face, and there is no easily identifiable emotion that Shuten can truly read there—not fear, not grief, not anger—but he feels suddenly ashamed, and has to look away. He glares into one of the room’s barren corners, scowling.
“For you,” he says roughly, not troubling to introduce himself, stomping forward to dump the clay jug and cup onto the low bedside table. When Shuten dares to glance back towards the bed, the king still looks mildly confused, but he reaches for the jug anyway, pouring himself a drink. He drains three cupfuls before he sets the jug down.
“Thank you,” the king says, and his voice still sounds dry. Those bastards.
“You need anything else?” Shuten asks. “Food?”
“You’re very kind,” the king says, which is not an answer to the question. Shuten smiles thinly.
“I’m really not,” he says, and waits. But when the king speaks again, it is not to ask about food.
“Are my people all right?”
“You mean those cowards in the courtyard?” Shuten says, taken aback. “They all threw down their arms when we broke through, so we’ve taken them prisoner. They’re already denouncing you and swearing loyalty to our cause instead, taking new lieges.”
He expects the king to be angry, or sad, but he just looks relieved.
“I told them to,” he says simply. “Killing people, having people die on my behalf—that was never what I wanted.”
“Then why did you do it?” Shuten asks abruptly. The red-haired youth on the bed looks up, confused.
“Telling everyone you were a god. Seizing power over the tribes. Why do it? Are you just insane?”
The young man smiles faintly, and looks down at his hands.
“I have been told that I am,” he says quietly. “And I never said I was a god. That was all Guen’s idea. He said no one would listen to me, otherwise.”
“So you did lie, then,” Shuten says, disappointment thick in his chest. He had not expected to feel disappointed. The king shakes his head.
“No. I really was a dragon, once. People simply would rather think I am still a dragon now, instead of the human that I appear to be. You are such short-sighted creatures! Don’t you know that it is a hundred times more marvelous, a thousand times more, to be a human on earth than it is to be a god in heaven? You have so little faith in yourselves.”
Shuten has not the faintest idea what to say to that, so he settles for seizing on the king’s strange wording, instead.
“You insist that you are human too, but you talk like you are not one of us,” Shuten says. The king shrugs slightly, still looking down at his hands.
“I am still learning,” he says.
There is a pause.
“If I was a god,” Shuten says, “a human is the last thing I would want to be. You must really be a fool, if you gave up heaven for this.”
He was trying to be mocking but it just comes out sounding bitter, more raw than he has ever wanted to sound. The king looks up at last, his eyes clear in his tired face. He regards Shuten with renewed interest, as though properly seeing him for the first time, and not merely seeing him but reading him, peeling him carefully apart like the pages of a book to see what is written inside him to make his voice sound like that. Shuten feels his face grow hot.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he snaps. The king blinks.
“Like—like you’re sorry for me. Don’t you dare. I’m not sorry for you, and of the two of us, who is going to live to see tomorrow’s sunset? I didn’t come here because I wanted to make friends.”
“Well, I am sorry,” the king admits quietly, his voice gentle. “But I am not trying to patronize you. I have been fighting all these years to make this land better, to help people live happily, and without fear. I am sorry that I have failed you in that, and failed so many more in this kingdom, too. But I went about it the only way I knew how.”
“Failed me?” Shuten repeats blankly. “What makes you think you’ve failed me?”
The king’s gaze does not waver.
“If I had not, you would not be so unhappy,” he says.
“I am not unhappy,” Shuten retorts, stung. “And even if I am—Even if I was unhappy, why does that have to have anything to do with you? Why are you so convinced that you have to matter? You said it yourself, you’re not a god at all, you’re just a man like me, like anyone, so why—” the words fall out of him like blood, spilling hot and fast— “why do you want to fix things? Why do you think it’s your job to make my life better? What right do you have, to say it is your fault if I am happy or not?”
There is a silence. Even as he ranted, Shuten felt foolish, and angry that he felt so. He drank too much, he thinks miserably; he should have gone to sleep, or for a walk, or anywhere but here. And now he’s made a idiot of himself in front of this idiot king.
“Don’t answer that,” he rasps harshly, folding his arms. “I don’t want to know.”
“I do not know that I have any right,” the king says pleasantly, calmly ignoring Shuten, “but as for why—I think it is for the same reason that you brought me water, when no one else did.”
Shuten flinches at that—actually flinches. The king looks down at the cup he is still holding balanced between his palms, and then hefts the jug thoughtfully.
“There is still a little left,” says the king, “if you want to take it with you when you go. I should have offered you a share earlier, I know; I must apologize to you again, I’m afraid. My thirst made me forget.”
He holds the jug out to Shuten, who recoils as though it is a sword in the king’s hand instead of water. The kindness—the utter, stupid, simple kindness in this king, in that outstretched hand, frightens him more than any sword ever has. He knows how to block a sword. His heart is beating too heavily and too quickly in his chest.
“No,” he refuses quickly, “I’m already drunk.”
He blinks; curses himself silently as his face flames even hotter. He’s always been an easy blusher.
“I mean,” he says, parsing out the words carefully between his teeth, “I have already drunk. You keep it.”
He backs away. The king continues to stare at him, but obligingly lowers his hand.
And then, the king smiles.
It is only a faint smile, as he tries but fails to suppress his amusement at Shuten’s clumsy tongue, but the effect is still startling, his wan, thin face suddenly beautiful.
Shuten, wholly unprepared, finds himself pierced through with that smile, shying away as though from a sudden flame in the dark. Finds himself thinking, dazedly, that this might be the last time Hiryuu ever smiles.
Shuten does not know where the thought comes from, whether from the drink or the exhaustion or something else, but he remembers the army gathered outside thirsting for this boy-king’s blood, and he knows what will happen tomorrow. He knows what this young man will suffer. He still does not understand this king at all—if anything, this short interview has made him feel like he understands him even less—but for just an instant Shuten looks at the king and the king smiles back and Shuten wonders what Hiryuu’s laughter would sound like, if just his smile is enough to light up his face like a sunrise, and he cannot stand it.
It was a terrible idea to come here. Why didn’t any of the men at in the courtyard stop him? Why did the men with their dice open the door?
He wrenches his gaze away from the king, and turns to leave before he makes an even greater fool of himself. Exhaustion is hitting him hard now, like the crash after the adrenaline of a fight, and all he wants to do is find a warm corner somewhere under a roof and sleep, preferably without dreams. He lifts his hand to knock the signal on the door, and then pauses.
“If you really are a god,” he says to the door handle, “Then fight back tomorrow. There isn’t going to be a trial, or anything like that. They aren’t accusing you of anything I can tell. They just want you out of the way. They’re going to kill you.”
The king says nothing. Shuten has his back turned to him and so cannot see his face, and he does not turn around. Never before has he turned his back to a living enemy, but he knows somehow, deeper than he has ever known anything, that he is safe here. He is afraid, yes, but not of the king. He is afraid of what that safety means.
He knocks, and almost immediately the door opens, and he walks through. Still, he does not turn. Even when the door is securely closed behind him, hiding that high-ceilinged room from view, he does not look back to where the king is sitting alone.
There is a brief silence, and then one of the men crouched on the floor raises an eyebrow, grinning.
“That was a long drink,” the man jokes up at him, and the rest of them either smirk or outright laugh.
Shuten stoops down, snatches up the dice from the ring, and hurls them as hard as he can down the corridor. In the stunned, dumb silence as he stalks away in the opposite direction he can still hear them, clattering across the panel floor like a fall of rain, tumbling down into the dark.
Chapter 13: IV. Shuten
In which there be dragons.
They gather in the dark before dawn. All of them: Eun-bi’s men, Seung’s men, Gi-hen’s men, the entire alliance that overthrew the king, jostling for space in the courtyard of the palace. There is a buzz of excitement in the air that belies the early hour: no one is drowsy this morning.
No one except Shuten, anyway.
He slept poorly, and woke feeling hungover, which does not seem fair to him considering he’s drunk far more in the past than what he imbibed the previous evening without any ill effects whatsoever. He blames the alcohol for the sick feeling in his stomach as he stands with the rest of the waiting crowd, watching the palace door. In front of the palace steps, a platform has been hastily cobbled together from deconstructed wagons and tables, its uneven wooden surface high enough above the crowd that Shuten can see it over the heads of the men in front of him. It stands empty, but not for long; that’s where they are going to execute the king.
The king’s generals and advisors, who were among the prisoners taken the previous day, have already been dragged out from their various cells to stand before the scaffolding, their hands bound at their backs and spears poised warningly at their backs. None of them look like they are planning to attempt any kind of rescue anyway, though. They stand listlessly, heads lowered like sheep in a pen, as though if they do not look at what is happening in front of them, it will not happen. Shuten can hear one of them sniffling thickly, as though perhaps the man is trying to stifle tears, but he cannot tell which it is.
He hates them. Hiryuu said we were to surrender, the prisoner had told him the previous day, as he walked meekly into his prison cell. And now Hiryuu’s men are going to stand by and watch their precious king be killed, and they are telling themselves it is because that is what the king wants, but Shuten knows the truth. They are cowards, the lot of them, using their king’s kindness as an excuse to save their own skins. He remembers Hiryuu’s smile, and his sad, too-young eyes.
They do not deserve him.
There is a sudden commotion towards the front of the crowd that ripples outward in a roar, and Shuten’s gaze whips up to the now open palace doors. It is easy to recognize the king. He is bareheaded and barefooted as he had been in his chamber, still clad in the same white shift, but his arms are bound behind his back and he is being led in chains up the wooden steps to the front of the platform. When he stumbles, the crowd jeers. His hair is like fire in the sunrise.
Shuten grips his spearhaft hard, and watches as the king is dragged forward. As he does not fight. He lifts his head briefly, and his face is serene almost to the point of blankness even though Shuten can see even from this distance the blood running from his mouth. One of the men surrounding the king sees him look up and responds by striking him across the back with his spearhaft, and the king falls forward, and still he does not fight. He hits the planks hard, without his hands to break his fall. They pin him there, with their spears. Everything is red, the spear blades, the men’s helmets, the very walls of the palace, but Hiryuu’s hair burns brightest of all.
He does not fight. He does not struggle at all. It doesn’t make sense. Shuten watches, holding his spear.
He hears the prisoner start sobbing again, the sound thick and ugly as the mob roars and presses closer, eager to see the self-proclaimed god-king die.
Shuten hates the king. But he hates everyone else in this courtyard much, much more.
“Damn you,” he mutters savagely, and starts shouldering his way through the mob, towards the platform. He does not even know who he is cursing, really—the crowd, or the king, or himself. But his chest is tight with that steadily building tension that he suddenly recognizes now as panic, adrenaline thrumming through his blood, making his ears ring with more than just the clamor of the crowd. He shoves at people with his hands, with the haft of his spear, elbowing ribcages, kicking at men’s feet so that they step instinctively away to give him room. Some people swear at him, but he scarcely notices. His spear is much taller again than he is, the sunlight catching its three-pronged blade redly like it catches the blades of the spears pinning the king to the scaffold floor, and Shuten is good at killing people with spears, always has been, ever since he was a child; he knows all the places where you can cut out a man’s life, knows how easy it is to punch the blade through flesh, knows how much blood comes from a death-wound and how long it can take a man to die even after he’s dead, writhing, choking, stinking, gasping—
Shuten is gasping, himself, as he fights his way to the king. He is unable to take his eyes off the flame of the king’s hair, beacon-bright above the sea of people Shuten is struggling through, the sun over the hills. It is hard to shove his way through the press of bodies, but he tries—with everything he has in him, he tries—and then one of the men up there on the platform lifts his spear, and Shuten cries out wordlessly, knowing even as he lunges forward that he will not make it in time.
The dragons come.
Chapter 14: V. Shuten
In which we finally reach some canon.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
There are four of them, filling the sky like they have always been there, endlessly huge and coiling and filled with light, so bright the very sun seems dark. Yellow, Blue, White, Green. The mob around Shuten explodes into panic, falling to the ground in terror or bolting in a wild flight away from the platform where the King is bound, but how can you flee from the sky? Shuten is left forgotten, as the crowd falls apart around him. He stands transfixed, face lifted towards the sky in what feels like, for the first time in his life, something like prayer.
It was true. Everything, the entire time. Even when he had started forcing his way through the crowd towards the king, even when he had realized he could not let this king die, he had not really believed in the gods. But here they all are, his hair wild in the wind of their breathing, his ears ringing with the screaming around him. He should be afraid, he knows in a distant sort of way, but he isn't. That horrible feeling in the pit of his stomach, that vise in his ribcage when he watched the king be dragged out on the platform—that was fear. This is something else.
The gods do not look at him, neither to smite him for his role in taking Hiryuu prisoner, nor to praise him for his tiny attempt at saving him. He is not surprised by this; he is, after all, only one man in a sea of men, insignificant as an insect against the splendor and might of heaven broken open above him. He has lived all his life as a tiny cog in a vast machine of war and power, kicking and clawing for his place in the world, needed by no one, wanted by no one except the army in the way the army wants all bodies—to chew them up and use them until all that's left is to spit them out. Now that he can see the gods with his own eyes, they do not notice him either. It should be a relief, but instead he just feels hollow.
It also makes Hiryuu an even stranger puzzle. It would be easier to explain away the king's kindness and interest in the welfare of humans if it was just a manifestation of his divine nature, but these dragons have eyes only for Hiryuu. It is obvious to Shuten that they do not care about humans at all.
"Hiryuu," says one of the dragons. The voice is deep, resonating in Shuten's very bones, buzzing in his teeth. He cannot tell which of the dragons is speaking. All of the gods have lowered their heads towards Hiryuu, and all of their jaws are unmoving, fixed in unnervingly long-toothed grins.
"Hiryuu! We have come for you. Return to the heavens and destroy the humans who have forgotten to cherish and heed the gods."
The wrath in that resonant voice is terrible, and four long tails lash across the sky, even as the dragons undulate lower, lower, stooping over the king in a manner that is oddly both predatory and protective, poised to snatch him free as though his chains were nothing more than spiderweb, the spears naught but stalks of grass. Hiryuu has struggled up to his knees in the commotion, but he looks disheveled and small before the gods, almost pitiable, were it not for the quiet authority he still wears, as he stares up unblinkingly into their railing windstorm-radiance. His long red hair is whipped to riotous glory in the rush of heaven's air, streaming back like a cloak.
And Shuten watches in disbelief as, even at this distance, he can clearly see the king shake his head: No.
The dragons rear back a little, clearly at just as much of a loss as Shuten is.
"Then let us save you, if you will not save yourself. Let us destroy the humans who have wronged you, and set you free! We shall teach these mortals what it means, to lay hands upon a god."
Again, unbelievably, the king shakes his head: No. This time, Shuten can see a tiny smile on the king's lips, as though the gods' insistence upon helping him amuses him. And for Shuten, this is the final straw.
"Idiot!" Shuten screams, nearly weeping in his frustration. All around him the men that have not fled have fallen to their knees, to their faces, groveling. He runs, trampling he knows not how many beneath his feet, vaulting forward. The king is still chained, still forced to his knees on the execution platform, but his head is lifted to the heavens and he speaks to the dragon gods just as he spoke to Shuten in his chamber the night before: calmly, without anger, without fear. All Shuten can see is a red-haired man, barely older than a boy, chained and surrounded by enemies and holding in the palm of his hand all the power in heaven, and refusing to use it. He barely knows anymore if he is running to free the king or to hit him over the head himself. How can someone so good be so stupid?
The dragons flow upwards, peeling away and across the sky like silken kites, away and away—north, south, east. They are leaving, Shuten realizes in disbelief. The king told his soldiers not to kill, and now he's told the gods to leave in peace, and for some reason both man and god listen to his commands even when they make no sense, and why is Shuten the only one willing to disappoint the king if it means the king will remain alive? He surges forward.
"Idiot!" He howls again, "what are you doing? Save yourself! Fight back!"
The king does not flinch, does not even look towards Shuten. He is still too far away to have heard anything over the din of panic and confusion. But suddenly Shuten feels as though he has been struck a massive blow to his right side, and he staggers nearly to his knees, stumbling badly.
When he wheels about, teeth bared, to meet whoever just attacked him, he finds himself face-to-face with a dragon.
It only took a pandemic and a resulting work furlough, but I am back! Thank you so much to everyone who has commented on this for years with such encouragement and enthusiasm, it means a lot. I have finally written more chapters and can thus begin updating again, thank you for the patience and support <3
(Any lines you recognize as being straight from the manga this chapter are, of course, exactly that. And I do not own them. I merely weave them into this narrative for the sake of canon-compliance.)