They had succeeded. They had all survived. They had earned the right to remember, to return to Heaven, and to resume the Heavenly identities and forms they had worn before.
They had all refused without a moment's thought, of course. All but one.
Goujun and Kanzeon withdrew a short distance to speak privately. The other four were still gaping at his sudden transformation as the implications began to dawn on them. Goujun ignored them for now; he would accept apologies later for the lack of dignity with which they had treated him. He would forgive them. He knew they had not known any better.
"What do you want to do, Your Majesty?" Kanzeon asked, "To return to Heaven? Or to the Western Sea?"
"I wish to ask about the duties and responsibilities I left behind. I assume the positions I held have been filled by another. My son? A grandson?"
"Ah. Your position in Heaven has been filled, yes, but by no relative of yours. Heaven no longer trusts dragons. I said you'd earned the right to return, not that there was a place for you anymore, or that you'd be welcomed." The bodhisattva watched him as if wondering if he was ready to know more.
"Tell me," he demanded, despite the disorientation of readjusting to a form he had not worn for five hundred years.
"Your people rose up against Heaven when they heard what had become of you. There was war. Heaven was already weakened, but even more dangerous for it, like a wounded animal. And you know that the Jade Emperor had been waiting for a time to establish complete authority over the dragons. In the aftermath of the revolt Heaven's Armies needed more scapegoats, someone else to punish and a chance to prove their power again."
"My family? My people?" the Dragon King whispered.
"All gone. Dead or sealed. There are no more dragons except distant relatives of your race, such as the non-sentient dragons they bio-engineered here at Hotou Castle. You are the last of your kind."
Goujun found himself kneeling in the dust and soot, though he did not remember falling. He put a hand to his face and it came away wet and sticky with red tears.
"What do you want to do, Goujun?"
"My honour will not let me live like this. My heart and soul do not know how to go on with this burden of responsibility that no longer has a purpose, only the weight of failure." He was grateful that the bodhisattva did not offer any empty reassurances that it was not his fault, that there was nothing he could have done. They both knew better.
He looked back at the other four. He looked at the officers he had failed to save five hundred years ago. They were different people now, and had chosen to stay as they were, without regrets.
Hakkai had started towards him in concern, calling a name that did not belong to Goujun's current form, but Lord Jiroushin blocked his path, shaking his head. Gojyo laid a gentle but firm hand on Hakkai's arm, offering comfort and pulling him back to respect the dragon's desire for privacy.
"I cannot live like this," Goujun repeated, bowing his head, "but I do not wish to die yet. Take away this knowledge, and the burden of who I was. Let me return to Hakkai and the others, and let me live just long enough to match their remaining years, knowing them only for who they are now, no longer knowing myself to be anything else. Let me be only what they believed me to be, as that is all I can live with now." He raised his head and looked steadily at the bodhisattva. "That is what I want to do, Lord Bosatsu, God of Mercy and Compassion. Will you grant it?"
Kanzeon smiled at him. "Yes. But you must grant me one thing first, since it will be the last chance for it." Taking his hands, se pulled him to his feet, then suddenly embraced him and kissed him tenderly, before finally releasing him.
The tiny white dragon hovered for a moment before the bodhisattva, looking at hir curiously, without recognition. Then he turned and flew back to those with whom he belonged.
Written 29 May 2005