The Shadow of Takeryuu:Part Four
Eunji had never seen anything like Muyang Brook Fortress. Its rammed-earth walls were thicker than she was tall, and instead of the bright reds and greens of her temple home, the materials that made up the fortress were more subdued and sombre in colour. Overall it gave the impression of being a very severe place. The officers who stared at the group as they passed by did not help matters much, either.
Wai Ren's residence within the complex was a little livelier, with golden Belonthiss statues perched at the points of its tile roofs and a small garden in the courtyard. The interior of the mansion was decorated with all manner of works of art—jade carvings, elaborate metalwork, and painstakingly crafted silk tapestries. Ganzorig admired all of this as well, and although Min tried to remain focused on her objective, it was clear that their opulent surroundings awed the farmgirl.
The general gave orders to a servant to prepare a large lunch, and then led his guests to a banquet room that looked out on the courtyard. Here, a myriad of pillows were arranged around a low table. Eunji flinched—something was warping the flow of energy here.
"Make yourselves comfortable," Wai Ren said, folding his paws behind his back. "Lunch should be arriving shortly."
As Ganzorig and Min sat at the table, Eunji debated for a moment whether to join them. Then she decided the agitation was too much. "Please excuse me," she said to the general as she moved a cushion from one side of the table to the other.
Wai Ren raised an eyebrow. "What are you doing?" he asked.
"I beg your pardon, General," Eunji said as she angled a chest of drawers so it did not sit flush against the corner of the room, "but the flow here isn't quite right. Don't worry, I'll fix it."
"This is usual for her," Ganzorig assured the Kougra as he sipped a cup of water. "You should see how she arranges our campsites."
"Oh—and you should most definitely put these peach blossoms in the northwestern corner of the room," the Vandagyre said, pulling the vase of blooming branches to her prescribed area. "It promotes peaceful thoughts and amiability toward others. There!" She dusted off her paws as she knelt next to Ganzorig. "How does that feel?"
The Lupe chuckled. "I think you're the only one who can notice any difference, Eunji," he said.
Wai Ren stroked his thin beard thoughtfully. "I can't notice a difference either," he said, "but perhaps that's why so many arguments always seem to break out in this room." He smiled at Eunji. "What odd travelers you are."
"I shall take that as a compliment," Ganzorig said.
Min gulped down her cup of water. "Now that all the pleasantries have been dealt with," she said, "how about I tell you everything I see wrong with the emperor's rule, General?" She grinned rather fiercely at the Kougra. "Do make yourself comfortable. We're going to be here for a while."
Wai Ren's ear flicked and he chuckled, trying to sound polite. "I am quite certain you could write an entire book on your grievances with the emperor, young lady," he said as his tail lolled behind him, "and as much as I would love to hear them, instead I think our time would be better spent if I extended an offer to the three of you that I think you'll find agreeable."
The general rose to his feet, leaned out into the hallway to check for other Neopets, then moved to the doors to the courtyard and slid them closed. Sitting back down, he folded his paws under his chin and stared at his guests. "Do you want to know why Emperor Takeryuu has increased tax rates so sharply these past few years?" he asked. "He's sending tribute to the Great Empire."
Eunji did not know what that was, but for some reason just the name sent a shiver down her spine and ruffled her feathers.
"What's the Great Empire?" Min asked.
"Far to the east," Wai Ren said, "past the Heavens-Reaching Mountains, lies a vast and prosperous empire ruled by an illustrious council of magicians. Emperor Takeryuu is determined to make them see that Shenkuu is every bit as powerful and capable as the Empire, no matter how hard he must press his subjects to get results. I hear he is making plans to start conscripting peasants to build larger palaces and monuments to Shenkuu's glory—the emperor's glory."
Min gasped. "That's not fair!" she said. "We need all the help we can get in the fields already!"
"Yes, and I doubt the conscripts would be treated kindly," Wai Ren said with a shake of his head. "It's dreadful, really. I'm of the opinion that he's gone much too far." He paused. "I would even venture to say he is no longer fit to rule."
Ganzorig laughed. "So this is what it's all about," he said. "You want the emperor's throne."
Wai Ren blinked, looking shocked that such a rustic-seeming Lupe could put the pieces together so easily. "Well, I dare say I'd do a better job than him," the general said. "But even with my abilities, it won't be easy. I can't just walk into the palace and demand the throne."
"Why are you telling us this?" Min asked. "What are we supposed to do about it?"
Wai Ren's ears perked and he held out a paw to silence her. A moment later, a pair of servants appeared bringing bowls of pickled vegetables.
"Oh, delicious," Eunji said as she nibbled on a piece of burdock root. "This is marvelous. Thank you, General."
Ganzorig pinched a slice of radish between his claws, sniffing at the food gingerly. "This is what passes for lunch among you civilised Neopets?" he asked.
Wai Ren narrowed his eyes at the Lupe, tail lashing. "This is only the first course," the Kougra said. "Meat dishes will be arriving shortly."
"Good," Ganzorig said. "By the way, you still haven't answered my question. What are you doing all the way out here?"
The Kougra's tail flipped in irritation and he placed his fingers on the bridge of his nose. "You are frustratingly persistent," he growled. "If you must know, I was reassigned to Muyang Brook Fortress a month ago, for no good reason, after years of faithful military service and self-sacrifice for the emperor's sake."
With a scowl, Wai Ren dropped a heavy paw on the table. "I think it is because he fears my growing power and influence. His Majesty does not like the idea of anyone beginning to approach his level. He has done this before, to other military commanders and court officials, but I thought I was different. There is just no winning with that Acara," he snarled. "I will make him regret dishonouring me so."
Ganzorig sat back and grinned, seeming satisfied with having found another raw nerve.
After a moment in which Wai Ren's dark eyes glittered like hard obsidian, he took a deep breath and brought himself back to reality. "At any rate," he said as he looked to Min. "I am not supposed to be in the Imperial City for the time being, so I must travel unannounced and without my usual escort. But the journey is long and I was concerned about going alone, until I saw the three of you, obviously capable warriors, at my front gates."
Min shifted uncomfortably on her cushion. Eunji could tell what she was thinking. The pudao that lay beside the Aisha was next to useless in the farmgirl's untrained paws.
"So, this is my proposition to you," Wai Ren said. "I would like you to accompany me to the Imperial City. The journey will be the most difficult part. I happen to be acquainted with more than a few courtiers who are also unhappy with Emperor Takeryuu for a variety of reasons. Already I have very carefully sent them correspondence, and they have responded with enthusiasm to my plans and pledged their alliance to me."
"And what's in it for us?" Ganzorig asked. He nibbled at the radish and stuck out his tongue, his whiskers bristling. Eunji offered him the bowl of burdock. "I'll be all right," the Lupe said, kindly pushing it back toward her. "I'll just wait for the meat to get here."
"Anything you want," Wai Ren said. "Anything at all. You want to live in your own palace instead of the woods? Consider it done. Abolish those stupid public works projects? No problem." He smiled at Min, whose ears perked, then turned to Eunji. "And what would Miss Interior Designer like as her reward?"
"I never said I wanted a palace," Ganzorig muttered.
Eunji sat up straight. "Cut off ties with the Neopian Empire," she said.
Wai Ren's eyes widened and he leaned back a bit, clearly not expecting that response. "You have grievances with the Empire?" he asked. "From what I understand, they do not treat their citizens much better than Takeryuu does, but they are a prosperous civilisation with great advances in the field of magic. As emperor, I should still like to secure their goodwill."
"No good will come of allying with the Empire," Eunji said. "Their hearts are steeped in shadow. If Shenkuu forms a connection with them, it will bring ruin to our great kingdom." Ganzorig and Min looked shocked as well. Eunji had told them of the particulars of Master Cheol's dream. This had to be the eastern shadow that was causing him such anxiety.
For a moment Wai Ren could not say anything. Finally he drummed his fingers on the table. "Hmm… well, that is quite a request," he said. "I shall have to think about that. You are asking me to drastically alter foreign policy."
"And yet you will drastically alter domestic policy to please a single farmer," Ganzorig pointed out.
Wai Ren frowned. "You know, you are much smarter than you look," he said, "although I wish you would learn to keep your muzzle shut."
Ganzorig shrugged. "What can I say, it's part of my charm," he said. "And thank you, again, for the compliment."
Wai Ren's fur bristled and his ears flattened, but he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "All right," he said. "Once I am established on the throne I will cut ties with the Neopian Empire. You have my word."
Eunji's heart leaped. "Thank you," she said.
"Now, wait just a moment," Ganzorig said, pushing himself to his hind paws. "If you'll excuse us, General, I think we ought to take a moment to talk about this." He looked at his companions, and the concern in his yellow eyes made Eunji leap up right away with a flitter of her wings.
"I don't see what's to talk about," Min said. "This sounds like just the opportunity we've been looking for!"
"I think we should all be agreed on this before we make any decisions," Eunji said. "This is rather important. Please?" She had already made up her mind, of course, but she wanted to accommodate Ganzorig, who obviously had his reservations.
Min looked over at Wai Ren, who seemed to be studying them pensively. "Fine," she said with a sigh.
"Take your time," Wai Ren said. "I know this must be a lot to digest." As they stepped into the courtyard, he reached for a bowl of pickled cucumbers.
Ganzorig shut the sliding door rather forcefully and stalked into the carefully raked sand of the rock garden, leaving enormous pawprints in his wake as Min and Eunji followed him, Eunji flying so as not to further disturb the sand. Crouching down in a huddle with the girls, Ganzorig said, "I don't trust this fellow as far as I can throw him. And considering his colouring, I probably can't even lift him."
"What do you mean?" Min asked. "He wants to help the farmers—I think that's fantastic! And he's going to overthrow our awful emperor!"
The Lupe sighed and shook his head. "He's trying to use us," he said. "Don't you see? He thinks he can get us to go along with his scheme, and if it falls through he can easily pin the blame on us and make up a story about how he was trying to stop us. Everyone at the palace would believe him and he would become a national hero, winning more clout with the emperor. On the other hand, if he succeeds, Wai Ren becomes the new emperor and has all his problems solved that way. And what makes you think he'll actually honour his agreements with us then? What power would we have to reinforce them?"
Min's earstalks drooped and her eyes grew large. "But… how could anyone be so corrupt?" she asked. "Eunji, is he just being cynical?"
The Vandagyre closed her eyes. "I hate to say it, but I think Ganzorig is right," she said. "I do not trust Wai Ren is being sincere with us either. Ganzorig has probed him quite well—we are dealing with a proud, self-interested Kougra with no qualms about manipulating Neopets."
Min's shoulders sagged and she looked aside. Eunji could only imagine how disappointed the Aisha must have felt. "I'm sorry," Eunji said softly. "You are brave and honourable, Min. I wish all Neopets had your integrity… but such is not the case."
"And yet you were bargaining with him as well," Ganzorig said to his diminutive companion as he folded his arms. "I know you are not stupid, Eunji, and you have proven to be less naïve than you look. You know he will not keep his promise to you."
Again the Vandagyre shut her eyes, putting a paw to her chin. After taking a moment to compose her thoughts, she said, "Master Cheol has a proverb: 'With kindness and gentleness, any river may be convinced to change its course'." She looked up at her Lupe companion and at Min, who was now frowning in the direction of Wai Ren's dining room. "The way I see it, we have been given a perfect opportunity to solve all of Shenkuu's problems. We speak of Wai Ren ascending the throne as if it is a bad thing. What if he were to rule with fairness and true nobility? He could turn this entire nation around."
"And what makes you think he will do so?" Min asked, narrowing her eyes.
"The journey to the Imperial City will not be swift," Eunji said. "If my map is correct, from here it will take the better part of a month on foot. That is plenty of time for us to influence this proud general and help him see a better way."
Min huffed. "Such sentimentalities sound nice," she said, "but what if they don't really work in real life?"
"They worked on me," Ganzorig said.
"Oh… right," Min said, chewing her lip.
Eunji smiled. "That is not the only example we have, either," she said. "When I was younger, a group of bandits found our temple and tried to loot it. Master Cheol walked up to them and invited them inside for lunch. They were so touched by his kindness and the way he truly cared about their problems that they resolved to turn their lives around. Nowadays, they are friends with the geomancers, and they and their families come to visit us often."
"That is quite nice," Ganzorig said with a smile. "This Wai Ren fellow will be a big project, even for someone like yourself, Eunji. Are you sure you are up to the task?"
"I am certainly going to try," Eunji said. "Because if I do not, who will? I doubt Wai Ren will wait to act on his plot until I am able to return to Lotus Mountain Temple and retrieve Master Cheol. The general seems most eager to get things rolling."
"Not to mention, now that he's let us in on his plans, he will not let us out of his sight so easily," Ganzorig muttered.
"That is true," Eunji said. It was a little discomfiting to realise that Wai Ren had effectively trapped them into doing this. He was quite cunning. But Eunji knew those abilities could be put to better use. They just had to convince him of that. "But I have faith in him. And I have faith in us."
Ganzorig put a paw on her shoulder. "Then I will stand by you," he said, "and I will fight by your side as your friend. Your methods are unconventional. I like them. Min?" He looked over to the Aisha, who was fidgeting with one of her earstalks.
She glanced up at him and straightened up, clenching her fists. "I don't know if or how this will work," she said, "but… I have got to save my village. I will do anything I can in order to ensure they receive aid." Her tail lashed. "And if that pompous Wai Ren thinks he can get away with not keeping his promises, he will have to answer to me!" She jabbed her thumb into her chest armour.
Ganzorig laughed. "That's the spirit!" he said.
"Let's not keep the general waiting," Eunji said, springing into the air once more. As her companions headed for the dining room, the Vandagyre lingered behind them and grabbed the rake leaning against a post nearby.
Ganzorig glanced over his shoulder at her and asked, "What are you doing?"
"Just tidying up," Eunji said with a smile. Faerie wings flittering, she hovered about the stones, raking the sand back into the patterns it had displayed before. As she went, she also picked up leaves that had fallen onto the sand. "Master Cheol says it is a good policy to always leave a place cleaner than when you found it."
"I suppose you determine to soften Wai Ren's heart by tending to his garden," Min said under her breath. Ganzorig chuckled softly, but the two waited for their geomancer friend to finish before going back inside.
"Meat's here," Wai Ren said as they stepped in, gesturing to the steaming bowls spread on the table in front of him.
"Oh, fantastic," Ganzorig said, taking a deep whiff of the savoury aroma as he sat back at the table. He reached for a bowl and grabbed several slices of meat with his bare paw, and was about to stuff them in his mouth when he saw Eunji's grimace. He grinned self-consciously at her and picked up his chopsticks instead.
"Thank you for giving us the time to talk it over, General," Eunji said in between nibbling on her bowl of rice. "We have decided to accept your offer, and we hope that in return you will honour your agreements with us."
Wai Ren's face lit up and he steepled his fingers, narrowing his eyes and looking very proud of himself indeed. "That is most excellent news," he said. "And yes, of course I have not forgotten my end of the bargain. Master Ganzorig, can I interest you in any reward for your assistance?"
"'Master' Ganzorig?" the Tyrannian Lupe asked. "Oh, I like that title. Let's keep that, although I am not sure what I am the master of."
"It's just an honourific," Min said. "Don't be so full of yourself."
"You are the master of your craft," Eunji chirped with a smile.
"Why, thank you," Ganzorig said, "although I am not so sure of that yet. We still have not yet perfected the Naleap mask." He looked back to Wai Ren and his expression hardened. "I'll be honest with you, I can't think of anything at the moment. We'll just say you owe me one."
Wai Ren frowned, but said, "Fair enough."
Meanwhile, an idea had popped into Eunji's head. "If it is not too much trouble, General," she said, "I think it would be prudent for us to ask for some form of collateral. After all, this is no small task we are undertaking."
The Kougra blinked and drummed his fingers on the table. "Oh—of course, yes," he said. "What were you thinking?"
"Please send a month's worth of food to Saro Village," Eunji said with a serene smile. "I am sure for someone of your influence and resources, this should not pose a problem." Min started in her seat and leaned forward to stare at the Vandagyre, who glanced at her knowingly. The Aisha's quest was dire, and Eunji had figured out a way to help right now, rather than waiting a month. The geomancer figured Wai Ren probably had an excess of food here, at the very least stored up in case of a siege.
Wai Ren smoothed out his moustache and stroked his beard. "Ah—all right, if that is what you desire," he said. "I will make arrangements."
"I will not leave until I see wagons full of food set out for Saro Village," Min said.
"Fine, fine," Wai Ren said with a grimace. "I will make arrangements today and we will set out tomorrow morning, at the same time as the wagons. How does that sound?"
The farmgirl grinned. "Perfect."
Eunji and Ganzorig smiled at one another. Eunji felt this was getting off to a great start already. Master Cheol would be proud of her. Not only had she discovered the true nature of the shadow, but she was going to stop it with the help of her friends—and with the help of a Kougra caught unawares in the midst of his own scheming.
To be continued…