When he first arrived in Tenkai, the thing Goujun found most surprising was that the endless fall of the sakura was not nearly as unchanging as he had been told. The ambient temperature, level of humidity and angle of the sun may have remained eternally constant, but the petals themselves seemed to respond to shifts in the diaphanous threads of energy and force that he eventually concluded were linked in some way to the residents of Tenkai themselves.
In his first years in office, he spent hours sitting underneath the trees in his private courtyard trying to puzzle out the complex web of cause and effect in what he soon realized was to be the most futile of endeavors. While Goujun was neither the most scientifically minded nor the most patient of dragons, it still took him many decades to give up the question entirely. There was something there, just out of reach, that he knew would be important if he could just discover the answer.
Sometime in his second century, his curiosity spent itself without his realizing it and he moved on to other, more pressing questions. He’d accepted the ebb and flow of the energy around him as revealed by the dance of the petals as just one more of the many aspects of Tenkai he would never completely understand.
Goujun, as most of his kind, rarely dreamed. When he did it is most often of the warm, placid waters of the ocean surrounding his family’s palace and the long-absent sensation it created as it moved against his scales and through his hair. He dreamed of the joyous freedom of flying, of the taste of meat. He dreamed of vast open skies and the blinding brightness of the midday sun on a cloudless day.
He rarely dreamed of people and on the few occasions he did, their presence was rarely more than an impression: a fleeting glimpse of short-cropped blonde hair; the smell of tobacco and alcohol in a poorly ventilated room; the strange, yet comforting feel of too-large hands rubbing the space between his horns.
The soft, pained tones of forced laughter.
The eldest of his kind believed that dreams of others, particularly those of the dead, held deep and powerful meaning. Goujun, however, had never paid such beliefs much mind. As heir to the Kingdom of the Western Ocean, he had been brought up in the most modern of ways. And as future liaison to Tenkai, his father had taught him to have a healthy, pragmatic sense of skepticism. He had little time or patience for ancient superstition.
Because of this, the first time few times he dreamed of Rouba, his long-dead great uncle and former ambassador to Tenkai, Goujun hadn’t paid it any heed. His dreams, rare though they might have been, disappeared almost instantly into the ether upon awakening. It wasn’t until months of dreaming had gone by that fragments began to surface in his consciousness during waking hours. It was even longer before he began to remember anything of significance.
The voice of superstition, persistent even against his rationality, whispered in the back of his mind, telling him to pay heed.
In the form he used to walk among the kami, his great uncle sat cross-legged with him under the largest of the sakura trees in the grove on the outskirts of the palace compound. Unlike the ancient dragon Goujun had known as a child, Rouba was young – by the size of his horns, scarcely into his majority. He wore the traditional robes of the Southern Kingdom, layers of reds, oranges and gold. He was a handsome man, by any culture’s standards.
“It’s warm today, don’t you think?” A fan materialized in his hand and with a snap of his wrist, it fell open. He brushed back his long, deep red hair and began to fan himself, the motion smooth and elegant.
Goujun wasn’t quite sure of the manner of greeting suited for use with one’s long-dead relative; however, from what he remembered of Rouba, he’d never been one to dwell too closely on formality.
“You seem well, Great Uncle.”
“I’ve missed this.” Rouba rested his free hand on one of the roots of the tree, just where it entered the bare dirt upon which he was sitting—
“This is where I met her, you know.” He gestured with his fan.
“Who, Great Uncle?”
Goujun had never heard anyone in his family speak the name of his great uncle’s mistress aloud, particularly not Rouba himself. It was no secret that the dragons sent to Tenkai occasionally took kami to their beds. Rouba, however, had gone against countless millennia of tradition and acknowledged her publicly. The scandal, Goujun had been told, had been unlike anything in five thousand years. Today he was still working to mend the rift this action, committed hundreds of years before he’d even hatched, had created between the dragons and the kami.
“Before I came, they warned me of course. I learned the songs of our ancestors just as well as you did.” Rouba began to hum what Goujun immediately recognized as the song of the meeting of the dragons and kami. “We learn them and we think we know. But we cannot truly understand until we are here, can we Goujun?”
“No.” Goujun felt his stomach turn and his heartbeat speed up. “We cannot.”
“I often wondered what it was like, that meeting … what exactly our ancestors thought when they first discovered the kami. How must they have appeared to us without the eons of distrust coloring our view of them?”
It was a ridiculous thing to wonder, Goujun thought. But then again, his great uncle had always been known to be quite the eccentric.
“After all that has happened, we know how dangerous they are and yet we remain intoxicated by them.” Rouba smiled. “Of all life’s mysteries, the one I most wish I could explain is why we find them so compelling. None of us have ever been able to explain it.”
The strangeness of heat generated by a living body radiating outward, warming him as easily as the rays of the sun. The alien feel of soft, pliant skin, so easily damaged and provocative. The flicker of emotion in otherworldly eyes, impossibly colored – familiar, but wholly different.
“I cannot understand it myself.” Goujun shook his head slightly. It was something he hadn’t even tried to comprehend.
He had been young and arrogant enough to think that he would be different, that he could ignore the draw he felt, dampen it somehow. But the all-consuming desire Goujun had felt for his kami subordinate the moment he saw him had destroyed his delusions completely.
It had been thrilling. Terrifying.
Rouba chuckled. “Despite your father’s training, you are your mother's son. Even the vast waters of the Western Ocean could not put out her fire.” He rose to his feet and smoothed out his robes–
“They will never change, Goujun. It is not in their nature.”
A warm breeze blew past, stirring up petals from the ground.
“They will destroy themselves.” It felt strange voicing the thought aloud.
“No. That would take much longer.” He looked upward, pointing into the canopy of the tree. “There is very little time left.”
Goujun watched as the blossoms of the tree began to fall off en masse, slowly being replaced by the pale green of emergent leaves.
“They are so proud of their civilization, their philosophies.” Rouba smiled sadly. “I wonder if they’ll ever realize that without them, they could have killed him before it was too late.”
Goujun’s dreams of his great uncle ended as abruptly as they began. Weeks bled into months and despite the mounting trouble down below, he remained preoccupied, unable to shake the feeling strange anticipation that settled around him. For the first time in centuries, he found himself once again watching the paths of the sakura petals.
Something had changed.
For the umpteenth time since the dreams had stopped, Goujun found himself drawn to the tree from his dreams. As he made his way to the outskirts of the sakura grove, he imagined that he felt a charge in the air, almost like the charge that accompanies a building storm. Only there were no storms in Tenkai.
The tide of energies was different, the gentle ebb and meandering flow was now tinged with a charge of something raw, almost wild. It was unlike anything he had come to associate with the refined control of Tenkai.
It tasted of home.
He heard them first, the low sounds of amused chuckling mixed with the clear tones of a child’s laughter.
“I think he’s got your number, Kenren.” The voice carried in the warm afternoon air.
Even after all the centuries, a thrill still raced through him at the sound of the kami’s voice. He was a fool – no different from his ancestors.
Goujun moved silently, drawing as close to the voices as possible without revealing his presence. From behind a nearby tree, he could see Tenpou sitting under the tree from his dreams with General Kenren, a blonde man he recognized as Konzen, Kanzeon Bosatsu’s nephew, and a small child with a book in his hands. A strange, inexplicable sense of longing washed over him as he watched them, talking and laughing.
A glimmer of gold in the child’s hair suddenly caught his eye and Goujun shifted his focus away from Tenpou. At that moment, the boy smiled as he turned toward Konzen and gazed up at him with golden eyes. The energy shifted around him, the charge building and intensifying.
In the way only the experienced can, Goujun understood.
Just as the dragons had once taken them in, the kami had found this child and been so fascinated that they’d brought him back with them. They’d clothed him and put a flimsy band of gold on his head in an effort to lock his power away. They had attempted to civilize the boy, teaching him how to behave, speak, and read.
The kami, with all the arrogance of the young, thought that they could control him in the same way they controlled everything in Tenkai. They were somehow blind to the magnitude of power the boy had carried into the heavens with him. Even dampened as it was, it was his presence alone that had caused the shift Goujun had sensed, sending ripples and currents ever outward, disrupting the placid energies of Tenkai.
They had no comprehension of what their decision had set into motion. And now, with the three kami in front of him besotted with the boy as they were, it was much too late to stop it.
Goujun rested his head against the trunk of the tree and laughed silently.