I’m still alive. Apologies for the delays. It’s probably going to be erratic until the holiday season is over, and I appreciate everyone’s patience.
Cassandra knew she was staring with her mouth hanging open, but at the moment couldn’t bring herself to care. The Heavenly Palace of the Jade Emperor was beyond her wildest imaginings. It was built on a series of seven floating islands that rested within clouds, connected by vast arching bridges that spanned over a perfectly green field of grass below. The buildings were built in the style of the Forbidden City – or more likely, Cassandra expected, the Forbidden City had been built in the style of the Heavenly Palace – although on a scale no human builders could have managed with the technology on the time. Under the floating bridges were rivers that wound through the sky, flowing over nothing and filled with iridescent fish that glimmered in the sunlight.
Dianmu’s gateway had opened in a pavilion on that perfect field, paved with golden bricks known as jīnzhuān. This place is so magnificent, Cassandra marveled, even the entranceway is paved with gold.
It was a far cry from the dark and terrible realms Bast and Vlad had shown her – his nanoverse is crawling citadels the size of planets, hers of twisted terrors transpiring under the baleful gaze of pyramids that housed hateful suns. This place wasn’t twisted and evil, it didn’t fill her with dread. It was the first place she’d since she’d gotten involved with these gods that was full of pure wonder, untainted by anything darker.
A being was descending from one of the islands, leaping off the edge and descending as slowly as a floating feather, his robes billowing out behind him. Dianmu squinted at the approaching form and smiled. “Tang Sanzang,” she said to Cassandra. “Better known in English as the Golden Cicada.”
Cassandra had to suppress a surprised gasp. She didn’t do very well at it, and Dianmu’s eyes twinkled. “The Golden Cicada?”
“You’ve heard of him?” Dianmu asked.
Cassandra nodded firmly. “I took a class where we analyzed The Journey to the West as for a literature credit. Tripitaka was the reincarnation of the Golden Cicada and we learned he was based on a historical monk, Xuanzang, and…wait. If gods are created by finding their nanoverses, does that mean that he is Xuanzang?”
Dianmu laughed. “Oh, he’s going to like you.”
“I mean…crap. Should I bow? Kowtow? What do I-”
Dianmu put a hand on her shoulder. “Follow my lead, Cassandra. Bow as deeply as I do, and slightly more. But do not worry – Cicada is friendly, and understands that you are showing respect, so long as that is what you are doing.”
“But…I’m an anthropophage,” Cassandra said, her voice small. Dianmu squeeze her shoulder reassuringly, but it was too late for her to anything else to put Cassandra at ease. Golden Cicada had touched to the ground and was approaching. “Dianmu,” he said.
Dianmu bowed, and Cassandra imitated the gesture, following Dianmu’s advice and going lower with the motion than Dianmu did. Cicada returned the bow, and Cassandra noted his bow was not as low as either of theirs – it seemed that he outranked Dianmu. “Xuanzang,” she said as they all straightened, her voice warm. “It is good to see you again.”
Now that he was on the ground, Cassandra could get a better look at him. He was somewhat plain, a far cry from the beautiful and handsome gods Cassandra had grown used to, but that was offset by a welcoming warmth to his eyes that seemed almost grandfatherly. Remembering what she could of the mythology of Journey to the West, Cassandra thought that perhaps a Buddhist monk would consider the overblown beauty of most Gods as a vanity he wanted to avoid.
“I welcome your return as well,” Cicada said, and Cassandra had to wonder how she should think of him – was Cicada right? Or should it be the full Golden Cicada? Or Xuanzang or Tang Sanzang or even Tripitaka? She silently wished she’d been given more time to ask Dianmu questions, and decided to follow the storm goddesses lead and start thinking of him as Xuanzang. “You’ve been away from the Heavenly Palace for far too long. I’m glad you’ve returned to us in these trying times.”
“So you know?” Dianmu asked.
Xuanzang nodded. “We do know. And we know why you are here, what fear drove you to return.” The warmth in his eyes faded somewhat.
“Do you know the Emperor’s answer already?” Dianmu asked.
“I do not,” Xuanzang said. “But I do fear it will not be to your liking.” He smiled. “But we can talk of such dark things later. For now, we can celebrate your return. You and your guest – we have not been introduced.”
“Apologies for my lapse there,” Dianmu said. “This is Cassandra.”
“Cassandra,” Xuanzang said. “It is a pleasure to meet you. I have heard a great deal of your affliction, and I hope your burden has grown easier to bear.”
Oh crap he knows, Cassandra thought, her mind racing. How did he already know? Could he see it on her? Was she obviously an Anthropophage to everyone who saw her? Was he going to-
Dianmu was laughing politely, a hand covering her mouth. “Forgive me, I should have been clearer,” she said. “This is not the Cassandra. This is just a Cassandra. It has become fashionable on Earth to name children after some of the figures from myth, and Cassandra is one of the names that has endured well into modern times.”
Xuanzang smiled. “Of course, I should have asked.” He turned back to Cassandra. “It is still a pleasure to meet you. I understand this has become a more common greeting among your people?” He offered his hand.
Cassandra took it, her mind reeling still from the whiplash. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m a huge fan.”
“A…huge fan?” Xuanzang said, looking her up and down. “You seem to be human to me.”
“No, I mean…I…” But Xuanzang had a glint to his eyes, and Cassandra flushed. “You were making a joke, apologies.”
“No, my apologies,” Xuanzang said. “I think I spend too much time with Sun Wukong still – his sense of humor has rubbed off on me.”
Dianmu’s lips curled down in the barest hint of a frown. “Sun Wukong isn’t…here, is he?”
“Of course not,” Xuanzang said. “You know how much he dislikes spending time here. Last I heard, he was off on another adventure on one of the worlds orbiting Proxima Centurai. I doubt he’s even heard about what’s going on.”
Dianmu’s face relaxed. “I know he’s a friend of yours, and yet…”
“He can be trying,” Xuanzang said smoothly before Dianmu could finish whatever she’d been about to say. “I know that all too well, believe me.”
Cassandra realized she was staring, and shook herself out of it. “Sun Wukong is real. So that means you were Tripitaka?”
“Among other names,” Xuanzang said. “Allegory and myth and truth blend together in so much of the old literature. It’s hard to keep track of myself sometimes, and I lived it.”
“I can imagine,” Cassandra said.
“Perhaps you would like to dine with me?” Xuanzang asked, his glance indicating the invitation included Dianmu. “You’ve come a long way, and I’d love to answer your questions – while asking my own about Earth. It’s been some time since I was last there.”
“I’d love to!” Cassandra blurted out before Dianmu could speak, then turned red and glanced over at the storm goddess. “I mean…if that would be all right.”
“It would be,” Dianmu said after a pause. “I have questions about the Heavenly Palace of late, old friend – and why you think the Jade Emperor will reject my request.”
Xuanzang nodded somberly. “Then come with me. I hope I can answer some of your questions – and prepare you for the worst.”
As excited as Cassandra was, even she couldn’t miss the way that statement hung in the air.