The Cities Eternal: Tianxia
There is a certain degree of freedom in the air. Unbound by the ties of earth and gravity one can roil freely as in the water, ducking beneath cloudbanks and between mountains as the world passes beneath you. Without the oppressive darkness and pressure of the deep sea, the air is the one place a great being can feel truly free.
The setting sun across the cloudscape creates a panorama of unearthly beauty painted across the western heavens. As the sky begins to darken, great horizons of clouds are painted in rich golds and pale pinks as the sun cascades over cumulous mountains and cirrus waves. It is a heavenly land, existing only briefly as the clouds churn, collide, and separate in their own dance across the sky. It is in this place of golden mountains and white seas that a great and singular being cuts through the wind like a fish in the river, a band of crimson scales that swirls and rolls with the gusting currents high above the earth.
His name is Yin, ancient and powerful, and he is as much a part of these skies as the clouds and wind. A spirit born from air and water, an omen of mystic fortune that careens across the heavens. He is one of the Yinglong, a great dragon of the eastern skies.
He is no fiendish western monster, no six-limbed beast that bellows fire and thirsts for the blood of knights and princesses. He hoards no gold and needs no wings to propel his through the lofty skies. He is long and sinewy, like a serpent that coils and uncoils in sweeping undulating motions through the sky, propelled by the magic that permeates ever muscle, every scale. His scales are crimson and his claws bright gold, a line of brilliant white fur runs from a mane across his face and down his spine to his tufted tail. A pair of great antlers rise like a crown from his forehead, and his great square jaw holds long teeth and flared scales around his nostrils that let his taste the wind.
Yin coiled and shot downwards, feeling his speed build as the wind whipped past his face. He pulled up at the last moment above a still lake, sending ripples across the water from which he had almost struck as he saw his reflection slither across the water’s surface. With another whip of his tail he was gone again into the upper heavens, the clouds parting and curling about his as he passed, the mere passage of his body kicking up rainstorms and dispersing thunderheads.
A new noise came to his ears, a shuddering sound of striking metal that resonated even a mile above the ground. Yin was a potent spirit, and more sensitive to some things than even a dragon’s keen senses would normally allow. There was more to this feeling than the simple sound of metal striking metal, there was a distinct feeling of heated passion, of fury and fear, of a growing conflict on the ground below.
He was careful to hide his presence at first, taking a cloud with his from which to observe as he moved towards the source of the disharmony. From within his cumulous watch post, he looked down towards the earth, observing all beneath his.
Beneath his, on a great field cleared of trees with its grasses trampled underfoot, a great battle was taking place. Human armies clashed with sword and magic over the field as their battle lines collided. Yin had grown accustomed to human violence; the fact that they react with fear and anger amidst falling kingdoms was to be expected of their race.
This, however, was entirely different kind of battle, a form of warfare that Yin had not seen in centuries. Great armies of thousands had been organized, armed, and armored for the purpose of clashing at this field upon this day. Banners were raised from each side, all but invisible from his great elevation if not for his mystically-empowered vision. From his hiding place among the clouds he could see the banners clashing. The smaller side, their forces fewer and far less organized, waved a banner of a great golden horse across a green field. Yin, however, was more interested in the banners of the larger side. This force, more organized and better armed and armored bore flags of yellow fields, emblazoned with images of a great red dragon. Yin was astonished to see a visage very much like his own splashed across a hundred banners. Red scales and five fingers, the mark of an Imperial Yinglong, was not something raised by the idle or halfhearted. Yin now had a vested interest in this battle.
The outcome of the battle was not altogether surprising. The larger force, the ones beneath the dragon banner, had been organized enough to immediately take advantage of the terrain, pushing the army of the horse off of the high ground with ease and holding it to terrible effect. Yin, being a scholar of all schools of knowledge, was reasonably trained in the arts of mortal warfare and could see the hallmarks of a similarly educated hand behind the movements of these forces. His curiosity had caused the clouds to continue gathering around his, and soon a smattering of rain had begun to fall on the battlefield, great fields of mud growing beneath the feet of those in thickest battle, causing the melee to become even more heated. Though the battle was lost for the horse army, they fought on in vain, but Yin had seen enough carnage for the day to let it continue.
Removing himself from his post, Yin burst from the clouds into the open air, a great rift opening in the heavens behind his so that the sun could shine freely and spotlight his red scales. The armies both paused as the great dragon came into view and as one, the army of the Dragon Banners cheered as many of those beneath the Horse banners threw down their arms, seeing that their battle was truly lost.
After doing several circuits of the battlefield to ensure that everyone had seen him, Yin departed once more into the cloud banks. His curiosity was far from sated, however, and he wanted a closer look at the force behind this army that fought beneath his image. One had to ensure that their image was not taken in vain, after all.
Stealthily, he swooped down to earth and shifted his form. It was a common gift among many more ancient spirits to be able to take human form and as a great and mystic dragon, Yin was no exception. His favored form was that of a strapping young man in his mid-twenties with blue eyes and hair the color of fire. It stood out a bit, but he had his preferences and kept himself wrapped in a long hooded cloak for the most part. With his new human mask in place, he set off at speed towards the vast camp of the Dragon army.
Their camp was under heavy guard, but it was also flowing with people moving in and out of the impromptu gates of their narrow palisade. It took little more than some subtlety and a touch of magic to slip inside unnoticed by the guard along with the stream of traders that came with the victorious army, hoping to sell their goods for the scavenged valuables of their fallen foe. Opportunistic and two-faced, Yin had little fondness for them.
Still it made for good cover as he moved into the camp itself, hoping to judge the character of the army when they were unaware that a dragon judged their actions. He saw that the discipline they displayed on the battlefield was present beyond it as well. Even at ease the soldiers moved with a practiced rigidity and a seriousness in manner, though he could see the edges of that demeanor fraying as they rejoined their friends, trading tales of their successes and quietly honoring those who fell. No doubt there would be a celebration tonight, both for their victory and to pay homage to the spirits of the fallen. Yin was interested in seeing that, but before anything else he wished to find the leader of this great army.
In the center of the camp was a tent as massive as it was grand, a great towering mountain of red and yellow silk that rose above the plain white tents like the body of a slumbering giant.
Emblazoned upon it were all manner of Imperial symbols. The crescent moon and trio of stars, the dragon and fenghuang, the three-legged crow and the axehead. Yin frowned at the presumptuousness; he had received no word about the bestowment of the Mandate of Heaven. Either this leader of armies would soon earn the wrath of the gods for his arrogance, or perhaps they truly were a Son of Heaven. Either way, he would soon have his answer.
He approached the great tent, still dressed in a common hooded cloak and looking far too poor to be in the presence of such finery. Even the guards of this tent had gold inlaid into their armor, with dragons emblazoned on their helms, the blades of their spears polished to a fine gleam. They stopped Yin’s march towards the tent, moving in front of his as they raised their palms to his.
“Halt!” One said. “You approach the tent of His Radiant Highness, identify yourself.”
Yin smiled. “I am but a humble traveler from distant lands. Where I am from, I know of no kings or Emperors, nor have I heard of one in these parts for many years. I was simply curious who stood at the head of this army.”
“This is the army of his Imperial Majesty Xuānyuán Huángdì, Son of Heaven and Ruler of Ten Thousand Years. Is that satisfactory?”
Yin’s curiosity only grew. So this man, who sat in a tent of crimson and gold and flew the Dragon Banners, had taken the name of the godlike Yellow Emperor for his own. While Yin did not know if this man was righteous or a blasphemer, he knew for certain he was bold.
“Oh, yes.” He nodded. “More than satisfactory.” With a flick of his fingers he passed from the attention of the guards as if he had never been there at all and he breezed like a soft spring wind past them and the other guards into the tent.
If it was grand on the outside, then the tent of Huángdì was nothing short of a marvel on the inside. The great tent poles were gilded in soft gold filigree of the most artful shapes. Jewels and fine silks hung from the ceiling, suspended and twinkling in the sunlight like multicolored rain. Everything was bathed in a soft red light from the crimson skin of the tent, and at the center of it all stood the Emperor’s Throne. It was a vast construction of gold and polished wood, shaped with utmost precision to the Emperor’s will, designed to the last detail to magnify his presence when he sat upon it so that the man was made larger by the throne, rather than overshadowed by it.
Upon this great throne sat the self-crowned Emperor Huángdì. At a glance Yin knew this man was not the godlike spirit that had once held the name and ruled all of China. He was still young, likely in his early thirties with a thin face but prominent chin beneath a head of pristinely-kept hair. He was dressed in fairly appropriate fashion for an Emperor, wearing a thick robe of black emblazoned with golden dragons. He wore it well, the manner suiting him as he sat slightly reclined in his throne, listening idly to the words of his various advisers on their victory and their next movements.
What caught his eyes next was the tall woman who stood at the Emperor’s left arm, leaning slightly over the throne and dressed in robes gold and red with a feathered pattern so brilliant she almost outshone the seat and Emperor himself. Her hair was a deep unnatural gold, the tips of which were red. Most would think this woman a simple beautiful concubine or consort, but Yin could see through the human mask in a moment. This woman was a fenghuang, an Imperial Phoenix, and it gave Yin pause.
The fenghuang was as royal a creature as Yin himself. If one had taken a place at this Emperor’s side then there may yet be more to him than he knew. The phoenix’s golden eyes flashed over him, and Yin knew his disguise was just as easy to penetrate. She whispered something softly into the Emperor’s ear, and the man rose to pull the attention of his advisers towards Yin.
“Gentlemen.” He said in a soft voice that nonetheless demanded their full attention. “It seems we have an auspicious visitor.”
With notice deliberately drawn to him, the entire tent suddenly became aware of Yin’s presence. Knowing his brief disguise was about to evaporate, he dutifully threw off the common cloak revealing the long dress and robes of crimson scales and black fur beneath, his full red of crimson hair falling to waist length.
“Who is it that we have the pleasure of addressing?” The fenghuang spoke for him next as she took a step towards Yin. Duplicity and deceptiveness was unbecoming, and would get him no further, so Yin did not try to hide.
“My name is Yin, a Yinglong by nature and the dragon that appeared above the battlefield earlier this evening.”
The fenghuang spoke; she did not even seem to need his prompting. “If you truly are that self-same dragon then you honor us with your presence, Lord Yin.” She said. “The Emperor’s court is, of course, welcoming to such a noble spirit.”
“I should hope so.” Yin said. “Though it is with some surprise I find myself speaking to an Emperor. I received no word that the Mandate of Heaven had been given.”
“It has, rest assured.” The fenghuang smiled. “Huángdì is truly the Son of Heaven. It has been determined.”
“I will determine that for myself.” Yin said. “And I will hear words from his mouth, rather than those of his fenghuang.”
It would have been unspeakably taboo for a human to have made such a request. A man would have been honored to have even been addressed by a fenghuang. Yin, however, was not a man. He was part of the celestial hierarchy and was due that much respect.
Huángdì spoke next, still standing above his throne. “Indeed that is the respect you deserve, Lord Yin, Son of the Sky, and it is with pleasure I welcome you to my court and I thank you for your presence on the field. Your appearance saved us much bloodshed, no doubt.”
Yin kept his face stoic, he still needed to judge the worth of this so-called Emperor. “It was my pleasure,” He said. “But I did not come to receive your thanks.”
“Indeed.” He nodded. “In fact, I believe it is fate that brought you here.”
“Oh?” Yin asked.
The Emperor nodded. “As you have no doubt noticed my throne is asymmetrical, for while on my left Feng carries out her role with elegance and poise, I feel the emptiness on my right. Surely if I am to be a wise and well-guided Emperor than I must first have true balance. Harmony upon the throne will breed harmony among the people.”
Yin could not help but smirk. “So you would ask that a Yinglong stand at your right?”
“As is the rightful place of a dragon.” Huángdì said. “Together, we can make this nation whole again.”
“And what is it you seek, Huángdì?” Yin asked, stepping forward. “Why should I offer my guidance to you?”
“Because this country needs order and stability once more.” Huángdì said. “And more than any other I have brought it. More than a third of China now flies the Dragon Banner, and soon I shall march to take my rightful place in the old capital. My success is as much due to my generals, my soldiers, and my advisers. But even the greatest of men cannot do what we have done without the Will of Heaven at our backs.”
Yin still did not find himself entirely convinced, but this provided an excellent opportunity. At his side he could watch him, understand him, and learn to see if he was truly worthy to sit upon a throne. If he found himself displeased then he would be well-placed to deliver his wrath.
“Very well.” Yin said. “I shall take a place at the side of your throne for the time being, if only to see what the Spirits see in you, Huángdì, and what you see in China.”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=43&sl=69