"Why do you have to bring him into it? I hardly whiff my nose at the going-ons of Erlang Shen." Sun Wukong set down a chess piece.
The Jade Emperor tapped a finger upon the table, thinking. "Now, just let me think…"
A series of limestone bridges were crisscrossed in perfect symmetry over the lake, meeting in the middle of a small pagoda. One tier high and more of a sunroof than anything grand, it would have been plain had it not been made out of solid gold. Gold and gleaming to the point where it was almost hard to look at. Carved with intricate patterns and filed down to the millimetre, it's curled up eaves where adorned with small, gold bells. Two figures peered over a bejeweled table, one haunched over in concentration, the other leaning back and stroking his beard.
Wukong reclined in his seat, a surly look on his face. After a few minutes more of chagrined politeness, he got up, removed a plate of armour and pair of flared shoulder guards, and lumped them down on the floor. The marble mosaic floor cracked under its weight. Wukong made sure not to react. The Emperor already knew. He did not suggest he did. When Sun Wukong got an imperial summons from the Heavenly court, this was not what he had dressed for.
The Emperor set down his chess piece with a sting of a smile, drawing a line of Wukong's pieces away. His chess pieces, polished black onyx; Wukong's, marble white.
They had spent the past three days playing a single game of go. More than half of the pieces were spread over the board, cluttered and uneven.
"I'm just stating that it is what it is. There's much chatter up here since Yang Jian has taken on the role of the Enforcer. Much thanks to you," the Emperor said, lips turning up slightly. "But I digress."
Wukong pressed a finger to his temple and sighed lengthily. Every time he did something of the sort, the palace guard stationed on the bridge tensed, their shoulders rising in reckoning. Wukong had to be reminded that not everybody dared to remove armour and sigh before the three realm's Emperor. He clutched the table with both hands, bending down to reach the go pieces at eye level. His beady eyes darted about, nose scrunching at the board.
"What part of stingy Yang Jian's promotion has anything to do with me?" he piped up. Wukong took four white pieces, and, without warning, threw them high into the air one after the other. Startled, the Emperor jolted back. His expression drooping in offence and Wukong thought he might call for the guards. The go pieces landed one by one in procession, forming a perfect line on the board. The Emperor raised his brows, looked impressed at the feat, and then nodded.
"You have more work in this than you know," the Emperor said, picking up a black piece. "Yang Jian's always been somewhat of…" his voice trailed off.
"A Heavenly disgrace—"
"A solitary soul…"
"—Who ruins the view of wherever he stands," Wukong finished. He downed his cup of tea like a shot glass. Wukong loved seeing the Emperor's reaction jump and the little string of calculations in his eye on how to remain still, how to continue exchanging pleasantries. He was a diplomatic man like that. But Emperor was far from unflappable. Being an eyesore in this palace of gold was Wukong's forte. He gestured between them exaggeratedly. "Hah!"
The Emperor rolled his eyes before reaching for his tea. Wukong started tapping his feet as the Emperor poured them both a new cup. Hot steam furled above and the fragrant smell of chrysanthemum flowers wafted above.
"There's resistance to him getting promoted?" Wukong asked with a tilt of his head, amused. They were talking about it as if it were current, and it still was, would always be when it came to now-Commander Erlang and his complicated family. Which included the Jade Emperor himself, his uncle, even if he'd never admit it. The news was at least some fifty years old and people were still talking.
"Hmm…just chatter. Just chatter." The Emperor smiled. "Yang Jian's a difficult man. But a loyal man all the same. But - when his name is mentioned, yours goes along with it."
"Spare me," Wukong snapped.
The Emperor laid down another line of black peices. Wukong's brow twitched. He skimmed a hand over his hair, concentrating again.
What was the reason for this meeting? The Emperor had time for hedonism, but Wukong was sure his account of hedonism would not entail playing go with the likes of him. It seemed that the first to break character and ask would lose. So Wukong played along.
"It was the incident a couple centuries ago. The incident where…" the Emperor huffed. "When Heaven was in peril and Yang Jian stepped up." The Emperor smiled, a cold, uncaring thing. "It was a turning point for him. His position today is the fruit of his efforts."
He was trying to rile him, the old man. Nobody in Heaven liked to mention his little…escapade, ehem, to his face. But the sodden old man did not shy from that. If anything, the Jade Emperor was one to wave it in front of his face. It was always, 'thank you for joining us in the Heavenly court, but oh, we've just had the north palace wing renovated back to it's pre-Great Sage assault status, how fortunate!' It was not as if Wukong went around reminding the Heavenly court of their gross misfeasance when it came to laying out job descriptions. Or how his left shoulder blade had never felt the same again after a stabbing, how anything more than a stiff breeze hurt his eyes. The Jade Emperor liked to remind him. It was bordering on defamation, these days. If Wukong felt half guilty about it, it might had been a sound tactic. Instead, it just put him on edge.
Wukong got up, red flashing in his mind as he turned to haunch over the gold railing of the pagoda. He fumed quietly to himself for a moment, trying not to let the Emperor get to him. "My trip to the Heavenly palace? So this is it, isn't it, Ol' Emperor?"
Wukong turned around, jumping back into his seat. He sat with his knees up, fingers motioning above them, jumpy and deliberately petulant.
"You want to blame Erlang Shen's promotion on me? Old friend, you're the one who offered him the job and no one forced you to do it." What with him being the King of the three realms and beyond. But Wukong knew how Heaven worked and the Emperor had his hands tied where Erlang Shen was the strongest warrior in the realm. Wukong picked up the teacup, gulping down the scalding thing in one go again. The guard outside had tensed. "And you're forgetting just one important detail. Great god Erlang Shen, Yang Jian, did — not! — defeat me in battle," he finished, shrill.
His bearing refined, his visage noble, his three eyes shining and Celestial Howling Dog at his heel, Erlang Shen had been one of his stronger adversaries. Erlang Shen and Wukong's duel had lasted days, starting from above the skies of Mount Huaguo to beneath the sea to the surrounding land at miles away, utilising countless transformations and every whimsical, petty trick he had in the bag.
He'd turn into a fish and Erlang Shen would turn into some man-eating shark, he'd turn into a trusty dove and Erlang Shen would turn into a giant golden eagle. They took turns trying to outgrow each other when Wukong hit the same height as the mountain and then Erlang Shen had to make himself taller than that. It was tiring and electric and he'd never had to do so many quick transformations to save his reputation for transforming. He'd managed to keep one step ahead because Erlang Shen was a brutish fighter who expected patterns and predictability, but he was, by all accounts, a monkey. Who was he to have any idea how to act like a normal, functioning celestial being, never mind humanity; he fought like he lived and breathed — with elation, without holding back, with every last bit of venom in him.
At every twist, at every corner, from wielding his weapon to flashing his magic, Erlang Shen had kept up and matched him until eventually, they'd both started running out of ideas.
Then, as they were both rasping for breath, weapons raised but languid, they pounced for the last blow. It could have gone on for a few more days. It could have gong on until one of them slipped up and got stabbed through the chest and then some. It might have ended in a perfect draw. But Erlang Shen advanced not knowing Wukong was walking into ambush.
He was on the floor, teethmarks on his leg, the back of his head throbbing with an acute kind of pain. And then he was in the air, something binding his limps, the smell of smoke sickeningly lurid. It was Huaguo Shan. Burning.
The Emperor hovered his hand over the hot tea. "It's the only loss that you'd fault over a dog and an old frail man," he replied sweetly, words curling in the air like something fragile and breakable.
Wukong peered over the board one more time before reaching for his white pieces. "Nm. He should be thanking me for helping him up the altar. Bastard can't win me in a fair fight and no matter how many eyes he has, he won't have the gall to see it." Wukong scratched himself behind the neck. "Bastard."
But he leaned back, a glint in his ember eyes and something cruel in his smile. Wukong placed a line of white on the board. With a flick, he scattered a large portion of black chess pieces off the board. They clattered to the floor.
"Heheheh — Hahahhah!" Wukong bellowed, an artificial laugh.
The Emperor's fist thudded on the table, making Wukong laugh harder. "I wonder if that's what you'll say to the boy when he comes looking," he said snidely.
Wukong stopped laughing immediately. "What boy?"
The Emperor began piling up spilled chess pieces, gathering them with too-slow hands and tiny movements. He looked up suspiciously. "What do you mean, what boy? Don't you know you're been searched for?" He chuckled, a low, repressed burst of it. "I thought that was why you came all the way up here. To avoid him."
Wukong's eyes followed the Emperor as he swept up the chess pieces one by one, until a frown crinkled his face and he couldn't take it anymore. Fulling a hand before his face and blowing on it, magic spilled into the air. The chess pieces flew into the air, whirling like a waterspout back into their respective cases. The pieces on the board had magically straightened as well. Wukong laid his hands upon the table, leaning his head into his hand.
"What — boy?" he repeated, surly.
"Oh—ho, that's new. The entire three realms are in uproar and…" The Emperor broke off, a dramatic hand flying to cover his mouth. "Well, I guess you do live under the equivalent of a rock. In the mountains down, there, I mean."
The Emperor hadn't thought twice about said phrase, 'living under a rock,' but Wukong took it in a literal sense. His eyes flashed gold, something darkening his eyes. "Just spit it out, Emperor."
"Liu Chen Xiang. Heard of him?"
"Liu — who?"
"A boy from the mortal realm. His father, a scholar. His mother, a mountain guide. The boy's wholly misguided, thinking that Heaven owes him where he has been wronged. He's managed to cause a lot of trouble for some minor soldiers sent down to apprehend him," the Emperor said, a flatness in his voice.
Wukong blinked, mulling over his words. "A human?" he started, surprise changing his face for a moment. "You won't bore me with this unless it's something else," Wukong said lightly, eyeing the board again.
"He's no human," the Emperor said, lips curling up humourlessly. "He's a halfbreed."
Wukong looked up. The Emperor's tone had completely changed, something scathing and ugly on his tongue — as if he were above saying it, and it was commendable that he had. Wukong put his legs down, crossing them and taking a short breath. "Half god, half human?" he mused, taking a sip from his cup. "That's news."
"I thought you were aware," the Emperor said above his cup. He sipped slowly, his words hanging dense and thick in the air between them. "The heathen is Erlang Shen, Yang Jian's nephew."
"Nephew?" Wukong echoed.
The Emperor's lips curled back. "Liu Chen Xiang."
Wukong blinked twice, pulling a face in confusion. "Erlang Shen's nephew wants to see me?" Wukong sat back with a grin, his foot rocking back and forth. He regarded that thought for a moment.
"Tch. Does he have a right?" he finally stated, and the look on his face was vicious. "If he knows what's good for him, he'd stay in the mortal realm and be a human. That's what a smart boy would do."
"Exactly my view," the Emperor said, his hand floating up and touching a corner of his mouth with a silken handkerchief. He seemed to relax. The way he let his guard down only reminded Wukong that he had it up before. "But this halfbreed does not know how high the sky is, nor how thick is the earth. He's been very…trying." The Emperor glanced up, regarding him darkly. "He's caused trouble for Heaven. Evaded armed soldiers and scorned Heaven's name."
A brow quirked up and it took effort for Wukong to not do the same with his lips.
"…But he's still young. He's looking for someone to teach him magic. That person will probably be you."
"Pfffft," Wukong chuckled into his shoulder and slapped his knee hard. "Me?" he pointed to himself, and then tapped himself on the nose. "Does it look like I have time to humour you?"
"Humour me?" the Emperor repeated mockingly. He took another sip of tea. "If only," he said lightly. Then he turned up, the mirth wiping off his face. "Take this as a warning, Sun Wukong. The boy will ensnare you."
"Now that's funny." Wukong smirked.
"On the contrary." There was an edge to the Emperor's words now. "I think it would be quite humorous to see a union with Erlang Shen in this way. Train his nephew. Heheheh."
Wukong stared at the chessboard, having already lost track of who was supposed to go. It had to be the Emperor, or he'd have complained by now. "Emperor, what I find humorous," Wukong started, his voice dropping an octave in a way that made his voice rasp with grit, "Is the fact that you think I'll place my name next to someone in the likes of Yang Jian."
"Bahahaha!" The Emperor rolled his back, his smile cutting like a grimace. "Then what about this. How about a bet?"
Wukong peered slowly up from the chess pieces. A smile stretched across his face, mirroring the Emperor's with much more sharp teeth and immodest flair. "What's the stakes?"
The Emperor was fiddling with a chess piece in his hand. Wukong held his stare, never looking down at it.
"You keep your word, and I cordially invite you to every single last Heavenly Peach Banquet until the end of time," he said, finishing by dropping the chess piece. It hit the golden table and shattered on impact. "Heh. Guards." The Emperor motioned to the guards, who immediately turned around to face them. They were to witness should he take up the challenge.
But that….was not what he expected. Sun Wukong didn't care for the peaches. He did not care for elixirs of immortality, which he'd already achieved. He didn't even care for the thousand year old fine wine, the exuberant dances or lavish cerebration and study in extravagance.
But, he thought, an invite would be nice. An invite to remind Heaven for thousands upon thousands of years to come, that they owed him entrance to their most esteemed ceremony, the pinnacle of Heaven, the most sought-after right of all gods and goddesses. To be named on that heavenly guest list was reverence and worship and reputation.
He cared to be invited to parties even should he not attend them. To be forever invited to the party he'd once crawled into and torn asunder, sounded delicious. A bet from a King was not an invitation, but a duel. But more than that—
If nothing else, Sun Wukong wanted to best the Jade Emperor, and would not stand down even for something as meagre as this. It mattered not - he already knew who would come out victor.
"But if you lose," the Emperor chimed in,"…if you lose…what will you do if you lose?"
"Jade Emperor," Wukong started, fingers tapping on the table and making the pieces jump. "The day I take in Yang Jian's nephew as a disciple, is the day I gladly take another five hundred years under any mountain of your raising."
The Jade Emperor's eyes widened. His lips quirked in an involuntary spasm.
"Forgive me, Jade Emperor," Wukong cooed, eyes narrowing sheepishly and not meaning it, "There's nothing in this world I won't give up to scorn the name of Erlang Shen."
"And the heathen?" The Emperor tested, leaning forward and reaching out a hand adorned with many rings.
"What heathen?" Wukong said, taking it with might and shaking it once up-down.
Little did the old Emperor know, with this quaint bet, that Sun Wukong had made the quick and easy decision to scorn his name.
The Emperor smiled.