In the time before men, there were the four peer gods. Older than creation, but always young, they stood at the four corners of the world: Tenrinoh, whose court was in the East, Apros the mother goddess of the West, Kurin the holy demon of the South…and Karlman of the North Heaven.
Apros and Kurin were in harmony almost from the beginning, but much fear and unrest still remained between the Court of Heaven and the silent realm of the north.
While a warrior, Tenrinoh desired peace above all things, and he sent many emissaries to the North Heaven. Time passed and none returned. The fearful advisors of the East Heaven whispered poisoned words to Tenrinoh of the treachery of the North, but Tenrinoh refused to listen.
He continued to send messengers…eventually, one made it through. This messenger, whose name has been eaten by Time, passed through barren plains and icy steppes without seeing a single soul. As he penetrated further into the frontier of the North he was horrified to see the bones of monstrous things in the snow—burnt-out homesteads—rough mounds crested with frozen and rotted flowers. Was the North nothing but a vast grave? Finally, he saw flames on the horizon, and he steeled himself to enter what must only be a battleground.
As he neared the battle his resolve was nearly melted…monstrous shapes loomed out of the smoke and his ears began to bleed from a high, inhuman wailing that seemed to fill the sky. When he reached the scene he learned the truth behind every vanished messenger, and knew the reason for the silence of the North. There were bodies—the first people he had seen since crossing the north border. Men and women--not small and dark like the eastern gods but tall and golden--dressed for battle, lying amidst the remains of creatures that were utterly beyond the messenger's experience or comprehension. Everything covered in blood or burnt. What…what…happened?
Fearfully, the messenger moved on, finding it more difficult to walk with each step, still clutching the scroll with Tenrinoh's seal. If he could find someone…anyone…still alive…! The messenger did not realize in the midst of the smoke and flame that the breath was failing in his body; he did not notice that his limbs had begun to shake of their own accord. His head swam and his steps flagged, but still he lurched forward, seeking some face. This man from the peaceful and fragrant East could not know of the many youkai that had come to devour the North, nor of their poison that stained the land and the air around him. Finally his eyes lost their focus entirely, and his feet missed their steps, and he fell amid those strange golden warriors of the North as they lay silent in their blood.
Fate had written that this messenger would complete his task. He fell at the feet of the God Karlman (though he did not know it). His last vision was of a pair of piercing blue eyes without pupils looking kindly upon him, and a voice with a strange inflection asking his name.
A large hand rested gently on the back of his head, and the man from the East smiled and died peacefully amid a scene of Northern desolation.
Karlman stroked the strange dark hair of the dead boy for a moment, and then settled down on a mountain of bones to read the scroll that had been thrust weakly into his hand. Anyone watching would have seen little more than the messenger, through that air teeming with endless smoke and poison, had seen: a tall, strong man, hair cropped carelessly, brow knitted in concentration. No one could have told the color of his skin or his hair through all the blood and filth the youkai had left upon him…only those eyes, the undiluted eyes of a God, could be seen glowing there.
He read silently. Tenrinoh spoke of peace, of harmony. He mentioned Apros and Kurin, and the peace that existed between them. He wanted peace with Karlman as well. Karlman looked up, quickly, with a jerk of his chin. Peace? The ground was littered with his people. He knew the name of every corpse. Peace.
He looked down at the writing before him. Beautiful. Terribly distant. The East Court was another world in which the gods there had no knowledge of the suffering of the North. But perhaps…
He wrote his answer, in the blood of youkai, on the back of the same scroll. A slight movement of his head, and a raven came to him from its battlefield feast and took the message in its talons. The message was born to the East Court, where Tenrinoh received it silently as his advisors hovered and cried out in disgust over the uncouth writing and the smell of blood.
Karlman's message was brief. Your words are beautiful, King of the East Heaven…but words will not save my people. Hear me at your court. I am coming with my warriors, as Guardian of the North, to ask for your aid. Stand beside us…and you will have your Peace.
"We can never allow it! The men of the North are barbarians…demons! They have killed and eaten our messengers! They seek to lure us into a trap! My king…you will not let them come here…?" Tenrinoh stared into the distance as his advisors flew around him in a comic dance of fear and prejudice. Then he spoke.
"If Heaven does not know peace, the Earth will not know harmony. To be exalted…you must bow. That is the way of Heaven. I will welcome Karlman and his warriors."
Tenrinoh's words were deceptively soft, and they were final. His advisors subsided.
A few cycles of Heaven, and they arrived. The East Court was thrown into turmoil. The Northmen were small in number, but they stood well above even the tallest man of the court. Whereas the men of the East Court wore clothing of silk and had shining black hair tied carefully back, the rough men (and women) warriors of the North had masses of untamed hair the color of ripe wheat. They wore clothing of rough weave, and furs. They wore useless (even gaudy!) decorations of gold. Perhaps the people of the Eastern Court would not have stared or scoffed so much had they known that the Northmen were only trying to look their best out of respect for Tenrinoh and his subjects. As for the Northmen, they privately considered them all to be somewhat ridiculous in their bright silks with their cumbersome sleeves and collars. While the Northmen tried not to smirk and the eastern men tried to repress their shudders, Tenrinoh and Karlman looked long upon each other.
Karlman was not a spectacle in the same way that his countrymen were. In a way, he was dressed quite plainly. Despite the warmth of the East Heaven he had on a cloak of fur, which obscured most of his face. Beneath this was a dull blue robe, undecorated save for the emblem on his chest. He patiently regarded Tenrinoh, waiting to be welcomed into the Court. Tenrinoh came back to himself a little and bid Karlman and his warriors enter, and set about making them comfortable after their taxing journey.
He showed them their rooms in the palace, assigned servants for their comfort, and then turned aside to address Karlman.
"I greet you, North Sky, and thank you for coming here. Perhaps you would prefer to speak tomorrow, after you have rested?"
"Tenrinoh…I would speak with you now…if it is not unseemly." At this Tenrinoh's advisors made as if to object, but he raised a white hand to them and bid Karlman join him in one of the meeting-rooms, pointedly leaving them behind.
This did not stop them from eavesdropping, of course. In that room, Karlman spoke passionately and earnestly about his kingdom: the encroaching youkai, the slaughter of his people, the loss of communications with the other realms. "Tenrinoh…I realize that the East Court would have come to our aid but for lack of knowledge of our situation…is this not so?"
"Yes, Karlman…it pains me that we were not able to see—"
"It is well. But my people have built among them stories of the coldness of the Eastern people and see you as turning a blind eye to their pain. It is not so, but it is how they feel."
"What would you have me do?" Tenrinoh leaned forward; his words were not defensive, but pleading.
"As I said…fight with us. Fight with me. You are a warrior, your court has many strong men. We are all the children of Heaven. Will you not help us?"
"Of course, Karlman…! We must work to remove the threat to the North at once. But is there not more? Is that all you would ask of us…that which is already our duty? We have let you suffer so long, without knowing--"
Karlman sat back, so that Tenrinoh, without seeming to, could peer further into his face. He caught the glint of deafening blue, and tried not to start.
"You will have treaties, rituals…paper. I will sign your paper. But when the time comes I will need to give my people a sign that we are at peace…something they will understand. When that happens, I will ask you to trust me. If you…do…then I will be at ease in my heart and we will know peace. It is all I can ask of you, Tenrinoh."
"Very well." Tenrinoh bowed, as did Karlman. They rose.
It was decided that the most pressing concern was the welfare of the North Heaven. Tenrinoh incurred the worry of his court and the admiration of the northmen by insisting that they deal with the youkai together before any kind of treaty was reached. "We wish to help you, not as a condition of a treaty or a pact, but because we owe it to you, our kinsmen." At these words of Tenrinoh's the warriors on both sides cheered. Tenrinoh permitted himself a half-smile, and then his brow set in determination. For the first time in uncounted cycles he was fully armored, and bore his bow and sword as he rode beside Karlman in a long convoy towards the North.
"The Heavens will hardly know harmony if our lord dies before he is able to unite them," certain of Tenrinoh's court growled.
"Not to worry, brothers, we'll take good care of your king!" The tall men of the North laughed their easy laughter and the eastern men were silenced. Somewhere up ahead, perhaps Karlman smiled.
The following cycles were bloody and full of names. Many men and women fell in bravery as the youkai of the North were battled, and their names are remembered in songs still sung there. Poets began to chant strange eastern names in the same breath as the common names of northmen. The North and the East were drawn together in their mutual struggle against the darkness that lurks Outside, tearing at Creation. When all was said and done, the youkai were all exterminated or driven back, and the North Heaven was finally able to settle into a new kind of peace. Tenrinoh looked upon the people emerging from their mountain strongholds and ice shelters and was glad. And everyone could tell…that Karlman smiled.
After that the gods worked to rebuild the seat of the North Heaven. After the basic needs of the besieged northmen had been alleviated, Karlman took some of the wisest of his people back to the East Court to learn from the scholars and farmers there, while Tenrinoh left a group of strong eastern volunteers to help the gods of the North rebuild. All seemed well…Tenrinoh closed his eyes as he rode the path home and dreamed of peace, peace, peace throughout Heaven like a great river that could not be denied. Karlman did not close his eyes. He watched Tenrinoh.
The cycles that followed were undoubtedly ones of peace. When they returned to the East Court, the northmen set about learning the best ways to restore the shattered face of the northern landscape while Tenrinoh and Karlman closely discussed a pact between the two realms. They talked of future provisions, the trade of knowledge, customs, crops. They spoke of further treaties and meetings with Apros and Kurin. They spoke of differences, common ground, strengths, weaknesses. A time came when they drew up the final treaty and were ready to have it read and sworn by both gods.
The pact was read before all the people at the East Court, northern and eastern alike, and signed by Tenrinoh and then Karlman. But Tenrinoh noticed that the people of the North who witnessed still appeared uneasy. He looked to Karlman, and received what he had seen the entire time they had fought together…an impassive mouth and a hidden face. Karlman leaned forward, whispered. It is time…do you trust me? Tenrinoh nodded.
Without a word, Karlman took Tenrinoh's left hand, held it up so that his people among others could see the palm. Then he drew a small knife from his belt. Tenrinoh's advisors rushed forward, but Tenrinoh stopped them. He did not blink as Karlman drew the knife across his palm, or heed the cries or flood of whispers from his people. He only looked steadily at Karlman. Karlman held his own hand up and drew the knife across it, then in an abrupt motion that made Tenrinoh's eyes widen despite his elaborate composure, clasped his hand around Tenrinoh's. Now the northmen gasped, then bowed. Tenrinoh regarded them with surprise, but was immediately moved to stare at Karlman once more…for the first time, he had removed his hood.
The people of the East now received a double shock. They had come to picture something monstrous and uncouth hidden beneath those drab and voluminous robes; what they saw belied these images entirely. It had long been said that no god in Heaven could eclipse the beauty of Tenrinoh, and this was still true. But the god who stood so tall and straight and regarded Tenrinoh quietly now was like a vision of rich Dawn facing a beautiful patch of Midnight. His eyes were such that only Tenrinoh could long regard them…just as no one could look into the shifting gold of Tenrinoh's eyes for more than an instant. The pale women of the East found that they could no longer breathe as they looked at Karlman, the men felt their muscles tense. But now he was speaking:
"Now, Tenrinoh. This is the pact that no one may break. From this moment your blood is mine; mine, yours. I pledge to die for you; you, for me. Let no god dare to break it; let us never fall into betrayal. Do you swear this?"
Tenrinoh's voice was steady, even. "I swear. Let no god break it."
Karlman closed his eyes. Without opening them, he turned to his people. "RISE. This is your King…and mine."
Tenrinoh could only keep staring as Karlman turned back to him, opened his eyes, and knelt. "Lord…Tenrinoh."
Somehow, Tenrinoh thanked the men of the North and ended the ceremony. For once, his advisors were pleased as well, having seen the North Sky bow low before their King and acknowledge the power of their court so humbly. The northmen had immediately obeyed Karlman, immediately embraced Tenrinoh and the people of the East. But...why had this happened? Tenrinoh was thrown into confusion, though he did not show it. What…had he done?
Unsure of how to proceed, Tenrinoh did not have a chance to summon Karlman before the god came of his own accord and asked an audience. Tenrinoh immediately assented, and when they were alone, he burst out, "Karlman…! What…why…what did you mean? What was that?"
"Is your hand better, my king?" Karlman spoke genuinely, eyes respectfully lowered. Before he had always looked straight into Tenrinoh's face…or so Tenrinoh had assumed with the presence of the hood.
"Yes—why do you call me that? Are we not equals? I do not understand—"
Karlman looked straight at Tenrinoh again and he was relieved, although he also felt the force of those eyes. "Lord…my people may not value paper…they may not have studied the runes…but I have. I have…and I know that the East Court is the Seat of Heaven."
Tenrinoh's eye's widened. "But…I had no desire to press that ancient claim…or to challenge the rule of Karlman…! I would not have taken your kingdom from you!"
Karlman smiled. "I gave you what was yours. You agreed to let the people of the North handle their own affairs. You offered us aid. You fought with us. I am content, and you are my King."
Tenrinoh looked down. This was…Karlman was… "Karlman. It causes me great shame to think that I have gone all this long time in doubt with you. Your people are a noble people, and you—"
"Thank you, Lord," Karlman said quickly. "I merely wanted to apologize for the confusion I had no doubt caused you. And I am sorry I hurt your hand." This last was said in such an indescribable manner that Tenrinoh's head jerked up, but Karlman was not looking at him. "If you have no further need of me, I will retire."
"You may. I wish you a good rest."
"Lord." A curt nod, and Karlman quietly departed, leaving Tenrinoh's mind racing.
Cycle followed cycle. There was much commerce and travel between the four realms, and all of Heaven seemed to have reached harmony. With the four peer gods united in love and understanding, no evil dared threaten the sphere of Heaven. A new age began. Tenrinoh's heart was still and untroubled, and he rejoiced. Karlman was able to spend more and more time at the Seat of Heaven as his country was rebuilt and his people prospered and strengthened. Tenrinoh always welcomed his visits, because it made him glad to see a god who had suffered so much to hold his land together be able to relax and be lighthearted amid the luxuries of the East Court. Whenever he came upon Karlman lost in the simple pleasure of an interesting scroll, or sleeping deeply somewhere because he no longer had to watch eternally for the monsters that threatened his people, Tenrinoh's heart seemed to overflow with some feeling that was not a stillness…but…surely it was not wrong, either.
Karlman, on the other hand, had no illusions about his reasons for enjoying the East Court. When he read the gentle, pleading words of Tenrinoh and they seemed like the only shred of sanity and beauty in the bloody world around him…when he stepped down from his mount and looked into a face that was like a pale mirror set with two burning golden eyes…when his heightened senses felt rather than heard the long coils of black hair moving against those silks that Tenrinoh wore…Karlman knew that he had lost his heart utterly and instantly. As time went on, he had no desire to do anything but be near Tenrinoh, and serve him. Of course, he loved his people and forced himself to put them first, think of them first…but increasingly, they became as a noise in the background.
And so the Heavens and the Gods enjoyed peace…for a time.
But all things must end, else nothing could Begin.
There came a time when Karlman was at the East Court, feverishly studying some or other of Tenrinoh's volumes. Even the Gods have a set of rules, written in the night sky or below the ocean to our way of thinking, but they have runes and they have rules. Karlman was reading of Hakaishin, and he thought he understood Tenrinoh's burning desire for peace and harmony a little better. He had desperately wanted peace for the North…but how much more could this God of Destruction do to the whole of Heaven and Earth? He was startled by a hand on his shoulder. He shuddered involuntarily as Tenrinoh leaned to see what he was reading and one stray coil of midnight fell against Karlman's skin.
"My Lord. I hope you do not mind that I—"
"Karlman. You above all my subjects can feel free to do anything in my court, I think. Are you not the lord of the vast North Sky? No more subservience, I beg of you." His tone was light, but he looked at Karlman earnestly.
For his part, Karlman could only look down. He felt that he would not breathe again until Tenrinoh pulled away. Tenrinoh did not.
"Ah…you read of Hakaishin. My mirror image, my dark brother…without him Creation would have no meaning, yet…we must let him sleep, must we not?"
"Indeed. We must do our best to hold to the peace we have now…and avoid disharmony." Karlman hardly knew what he said…why must Tenrinoh stand so close?
"When do you leave next for the North?"
"Oh…I do not know. Soon, I suppose. When they have need of me." His voice sounded awkward to him.
"I am sure they always have need of you." A smile.
"Ah, that's better. What is it?"
Karlman did not know what he had been about to say. One pair of unreal eyes spoke to the other. He was breathing, he realized…but fast, and so…loud. How shameful, Tenrinoh must be—
You could not look on such a thing. No other god could look upon it, and certainly no one from the weak race of men that followed. Burning white, a kind of lava, no certain outlines. Wings seeming to flicker and subside. Arms, hands, in the loosest sense, raking across expanses of white flame. Mouths fusing and separating. Two pools of fire, two of ice, inches apart, opening, closing. Rising. Falling. Rising. Melting. No one but Tenrinoh and Karlman ever looked upon this thing. No one—but Heaven shuddered, and a great SOUND with no voice rose and throbbed to the furthest reaches of the sky. One…pulse. It was a call. It was a summons.
They did not hear. They heard and saw nothing. Karlman growled. Tenrinoh cried out softly. There was no Karlman, no Tenrinoh.
Karlman stayed on at the East Court. His people loved him, and so they did not press him…but the North longed for his return. Tenrinoh's people were happy enough, for their King was present in body at least…but he, too, neglected the doings of his court.
The East Court became less than a hum in Tenrinoh's ears. Karlman forgot the feel of a straw bed or a much-needed fire on an icy night. Heaven did not exist for Tenrinoh or Karlman.
There came a day when Tenrinoh was troubled and sought Karlman. He had lain back against Karlman for a long time after without speaking, and Karlman did not press him. They sat there, silently, wrapped in Karlman's cloak for warmth. Finally, Tenrinoh spoke:
"It is said that blood fell instead of rain in one of the fields of East Heaven."
Karlman's brow lowered. "That is indeed an ill omen. What do you think it signifies?"
"I think…it may mean the coming of the God of Destruction."
Karlman could not speak for a moment, but then it came in a torrent of protest. "BUT! We defeated the youkai, made peace with each other and the others, united Heaven! What could have possibly opened the way for His coming??"
Tenrinoh's voice was quiet. "The way is open for Hakaishin when the balance of Heaven is destroyed. Something has undone the fragile balance of Realms."
"What is this something, Tenrinoh? Send your servant, I will destroy it! Hakaishin cannot come, not…now…" his voice trailed off, broken.
Tenrinoh softly turned so that he was facing Karlman. He leaned into him, and for many minutes they did not speak. Then Tenrinoh subsided. "Us, Karlman. WE have broken the balance."
Karlman stared at him, open-mouthed.
Tenrinoh went on: "The North and the East are too close. The balance of power is undone. We shook the very pillars of Heaven when…we…" there was no need to continue, even if he had been able to.
Karlman's voice was deadly. "Then. What would you have me do…Lord?"
"We must not let the Balance crumble further. The North Heaven cries out for Karlman. Return to her. There muster your forces. We will meet Hakaishin wherever he breaks through…and stop him." His eyes were downcast as he said this, his voice flat.
"I see. I will go then," Karlman said savagely. He rose, pulled his cloak about him, leaving Tenrinoh, God of Creation, somehow impossibly white and small, still sitting there on the mat. The hood rose, the veil went up. Karlman no longer wanted his face to be seen. He turned to go.
Reluctantly, the North Sky paused.
Tenrinoh pulled his knees close to his body. "One day…in a thousand years, or ten thousand… We won't be gods anymore, not gods or even sennin, but men. We will be free…do you understand?"
Karlman's chin lifted and one more time, if you had been looking, you could have seen his face. It was very sad…but resigned.
"Then…a thousand years, or ten thousand. I will find you." He took his leave.
Tenrinoh did not see Karlman again.
Whydid he have to be so persistent? "Gateau, I really don't think—" Marron wasn't in the mood for Gateau's heavy-handed attentions today.
"Okay, okay. Sorry, I'll put my shirt back on. See?" Marron sighed, reassured, and turned his attention to other matters. Now where did—
Gateau looked after him, smiling. His smile had a touch of sadness…and infinite patience.