a certain responsibility
The pet shop owner seemed far less surprised than the little dragon when the latter became a man; tall, white-scaled, red-eyed, robed in heavy white silk, with a cloak embroidered white-on-white and edged with claws.
"I trust that your majesty will excuse me," the pet shop owner said, bowing. "I had very little warning of your arrival, and have little that could please a being of your stature or nature."
"You may rise," the man in white said. "Your name?"
"Those who live in the area address me as D, or Count D. Your majesty will be aware of my nature, if he has met my father; when we go abroad in the world of humans, we prefer to go unnoticed."
"I see." The man in white seated himself, then gestured for D to take one of the stools. "I am Goujun, Dragon King of the Western Ocean, Commander of the Armies of Heaven, and . . ." His brow furrowed, as though he was trying to remember something.
"Your majesty is inconvenienced," D said. "That is only natural. You are at the moment in a different reincarnation, and as such your memory of your own nature is blurred."
"Then why am I in this form, here and now?"
"Within my dwelling, majesty, all beings take either their natural form or a human one."
"An interesting question." D filled a cup of wine and presented it with a bow. "I, and my fathers before me, believe it is so that beings may perceive each other in a fashion which allows for apprehension of spirit. Too often, the appearance of physical form hinders true recognition."
"I see." Goujun accepted the cup and sipped from it. "Your wine is very good. Thank you."
"It is my pleasure to be of service to your majesty."
"I believe that there was a reason that I came here, but --" Goujun hesitated. "I fear that my memory is imperfect."
"I would suspect that your majesty came to my shop in search of a pet."
"A pet?" Goujun drew back at the very idea. "Surely not. It is my duty to seek out my brothers, to resume my proper nature . . ."
D waited until Goujun had come to a pause. "If it is the will of Heaven that your majesty endures your current existence, then the walls of my dwelling are only a momentary respite, your majesty."
Goujun stared at him with blank red eyes. "You are insolent."
D bowed. "I do not seek to give your majesty counsel. I merely speak the truth as I perceive and know it. Your majesty's essence remains the same whatever his form or reincarnation, but your majesty's duties may change with that reincarnation."
"You speak of the will of Heaven," Goujun said, his voice distant and full of storms. "I who have seen the walls of Heaven and its everlasting gardens, I say this to you: I have seen Heaven invaded by chaos and its warriors laid low by a child. What is Heaven that I should submit to it, when it has done this to me?"
"I have no answer for your majesty," D said, his long-fingered hands still in his lap. "But I would ask your majesty in return; what duty do humans have, when the world mistreats them and when they are betrayed by it?"
"Humans are nothing to me," Goujun said dismissively. He frowned again. "But I perceive the thrust of your argument. You say that we have a duty to our own nature."
"Your majesty has it," D agreed. "And as I fulfil mine now, so I beseech your majesty to remember what he has bound himself to."
Goujun set down his cup. "Which is?"
"How should I seek punishment? What have I done that I should regret?"
"Your majesty is a dragon," D said. "He regrets nothing. He has made his choices and he abides by them."
"And you say that I came here in search of --"
"A companion, perhaps, your majesty. But all that I can offer you here and now is a pet."
"What should I do with a pet?"
"Pets, your majesty, will not always be able to communicate with you, or you with them. Their understanding may be limited to your perceptions, and yours to them. And yet, perhaps, their affection may ease your majesty's heart, alone as your majesty is, and far from your brothers."
"Very well," Goujun said. There was a weariness to his voice. "I perceive that my time is limited. Show me your wares."
D rose. His hand moved to the cord of a hanging curtain. "I do not sell pets. People may come here for them, but that is their own affair. What I sell, your majesty, are love, dreams, and hopes."
"I was not aware that such things could be bought for money."
"Your majesty is quite correct. They can only be given. My price is a different matter."
"Then inform me of your price."
"An owner has a responsibility towards his pet, your majesty. That is all."
Goujun made a single gesture with one hand. The lantern-light gleamed on his claws. "You need not fear that I will neglect my responsibilities."
"Then I will attempt to answer your majesty's needs."
D tugged on the cord. The curtain fell in a long cascade of red silk, drifting to the ground in loose folds, revealing the man who stood on the other side. He was of average height, in a green tunic and dark trousers, with an unassuming smile, a monocle over his right eye, and three bands of silver on his left ear.
Where Goujun had been sitting, a small white dragon was coiled on the silk-draped couch.
"Thank you, Count," the young man said. "You're quite right. That is Hakuryuu. I'm sorry to have put you to the trouble of caring for him; we weren't sure where he'd got to after that ambush."
"Not at all." D walked across and picked the little dragon up in his arms, carrying him across the room to the young man. "Here you are, Hakkai-san."
Hakkai laughed nervously. "Heavens, Count. Are you giving him to me, or me to him?"
"A pretty question," D said. "And as such, quite unanswerable."
Hakkai frowned for a moment. His gaze fell on the empty cup of wine. "I hope that I didn't disturb you while you were drinking."
"Not at all," D said again. "I did have a guest, but he is gone now."
"Yes. Quite gone."