Goujun the White Dragon, king of the western ocean, was late in getting his first child. He considered well the alliances available to him and the offers which came from the Land Rulers, and consorted first with Chifan, heir to the ruler of the Northern Continent. Since it proved that he and the lady agreed well with each other, and since both were of settled tastes, they danced together three times in all. The first child gotten between them was a male, whom his father named Kaishou.
He was the third of his generation and eight years younger than his cousin Kaiei, the oldest son of Goukou the king of the eastern ocean. With that difference in age Goujun considered it natural that Kaiei would have the training of his son, but when the boy still wore infant's dresses Goukou counselled his brother that this was not to be.
"Our service in Heaven is onerous and not without its dangers. I think it best for us to keep our heirs at home and train them young in the ways of government. That applies to you too, Gouen, when you shall have a son," for he had been told that Gouen was already receiving offers from the land rulers and mountain dragons. "For two generations now the oldest of our family has died before his time, and now all four of us are exposed to the chances of Heaven. I will not send my son away for six years to the western ocean, and I think it unadvised for you to send Kaishou here for that length of time. Look to Goushou's female-side kin for an Older. You will not lack candidates, and high-born ones as well."
This was true, for Chifan's father was the First Prince of the Yellow River. He had thirteen brothers, and most of these river princes had sons who would be of a suitable age to act as Older by the time Kaishou bound his hair.
"I understand, ani-ue," Goujun said.
"The King of the Yellow River and his family are chief among the continental dragons," Goushou said musingly. "I wonder how they will conduct themselves in the palaces of the ocean dragons, especially when the masters of those palaces are away."
"Indeed," Gouen added in his quiet voice. "The King holds more state than any one of us except yourself, ani-ue, and his sons, from my observation, are high-stomached men. It may be that they will think they are conferring a favour on Third Brother by sending a son of theirs to the Western Ocean, rather than receiving the favour of the invitation."
Goukou nodded. "Nonetheless, the connection with the kings of the Yellow River would be very advantageous to Kaishou should you wish to pursue it, Goujun."
"There is that consideration indeed," Goujun said. "I will think on the matter, but I will also ask Chifan-dono if any of her family's male-side kin have ocean dragon blood in them."
"That I can answer," Gouen said. "The Northern Ruler's fifth child was gotten by the Duke of the Eastern Maelstrom, and he too has sons of his own. The Duke is a doughty soldier and an even better poet, and his allegiance is to our ani-ue."
"Ahh," Goujun said. "I have met him once or twice, but know nothing of him personally. Are you acquainted with him then, Gouen?"
"I have guested with him a number of times and find nothing to fault in his courtesy and hospitality."
Goukou and Goujun both nodded, but Goushou gave his youngest brother a look out the side of his eyes. "The Duke is known for his skills in battle indeed, but his poetry is not to my taste. I find it bloodless and dry, the work of one who thinks more than he feels."
Gouen cast his eyes down. "It is certainly a difficult kind of verse and not pleasing to everyone. But when one has worked one's way into it it yields unexpected riches." Goushou gave a sardonic smile, but since he favoured his youngest brother he said no more.
Goujun did indeed treat with the Duke of the Eastern Maelstrom, and it was agreed that Shinran, the Duke's heir, should become Older to the son of the King of the Western Ocean. But when it came time to bind Kaishou's hair, Goujun was not there to do it. It was Goushou who performed that office as Kaishou's adopted father, and it was to the southern ocean that Shinran came to spend the six years of Kaishou's training.
Goushou reached the round eminence of Tsaomei'kang as the sun was setting in a blaze of red and gold. The little house stood as ever in its garden of peony flowers, but no light yet showed within it. Goushou alighted and changed form. For a moment shifting black bars swam before his manform eyes from having the sun always on his left throughout the flight from the southern ocean: a weakness that his dragon eyes were proof against. He blinked until the colours of the world reasserted themselves, then slid aside the latch of the bamboo gate and walked through. Pipang was not in his garden, and when Goushou opened the door he found the house empty as well. Pipang must be about on his hill, watching the sunset from some other vantage point or talking with one of his many acquaintances there. Goushou felt a small sense of abandonment, for he was more than usually desirous of seeing his friend. But since he was as at home in Pipang's house as in his own palace, he lit the moon lamp and placed it by the window, and sat down to await the Sage's return. Shortly thereafter there was a step from the back of the house, but it was only Pipang's servant, the old dragon Laofang, surprised at finding Goushou sitting in his master's study.
"Goushou-sama, forgive my neglect. I will bring you tea and refreshments. The master said he might be late this evening and that I was to leave him a cold collation, but now I will go prepare a warm dinner for you both."
"No need for that," Goushou said. "Tea will be enough. I will not disturb Pipang-dono's arrangements."
"As your Majesty wishes." Laofang bowed and disappeared to the kitchen area behind the cottage, only to return shortly with tea and almond biscuits. "Is there anything else your Majesty desires?" Laofang asked after he had poured Goushou's tea and laid it before him with rustic deference.
"Nothing more," Goushou said, taking up the cup with a nod.
"Then with your permission I will retire for the evening. Summon me if you have need of anything else."
"I think it will not be necessary. Have good rest, Laofang."
"Thank you, your Majesty. Your Majesty likewise."
Left alone Goushou gazed into the darkening night outside and sipped his tea. Pipang's house held its usual calm tranquility, but the spell only half-worked when Pipang was away. Goushou sighed, feeling melancholy stealing upon him. Strange, and a little disquieting, how much his happiness depended on the presence of others- of one special other, whoever it might be. There had been few times in his life when he'd felt completely whole and alive, as he'd felt in his youth before taking up the burden of his kingdom. Then, as he only discovered afterwards, the sense of completeness came from Goukou, that strong melodic note that sang beneath his days and kept the world spinning safely about him. Being parted from Goukou brought him a loneliness that was nearly unbearable. And afterwards there was their service in Heaven and all the outlandishness of the place to become accustomed to. It was a wonder he hadn't died of it, or thrown the Emperor's 'favour' back in his face and returned to the world of dragonkind.
But in the middle of this ordeal came salvation where he'd never expected it. Konnan, sent as messenger from one of his vassals- only a marquis, and lame, and so fit to run errands between the southern ocean and the Heaven that all right-thinking dragons held in abhorrence; one whom he would never have met face to face at home. Goushou smiled without thinking, remembering the first meeting. A dragon, he'd thought, his heart bounding with surprise and happiness at sight of the tall form with its bound hair and horns moving among the black and white crowd of kami. A brown dragon with a green Older, he saw, and felt an unplaceable sense of warmth and homecoming even before he'd seen the man's face. Red eyes met his, not the unpleasant yellow-white of the kami with their over-sized pupils; the face held experience and the knowledge of pain, unlike the kami who all looked like children masquerading as adults; the manners and courtesy were those of dragonkind, and a friendly flame had kindled in Goushou as the man gave his message.
He'd kept Konnan with him that night- and yes, if he were being fair, that was a freedom he owed to Heaven, for at home it would have brought more talk than he could have stomached. Konnan was deferential but not overwhelmed at companioning a king. Konnan matched verses with him with wit and dexterity but not genius. Poetry for Konnan too was a pastime, not the single-minded pursuit it was for such as Gouen. Konnan's company was a pleasure, and not merely because Goushou was starved for talk with his own kind.
Goushou had grieved that his own nature and rank were as they were, for it seemed to him that Konnan was one he might have loved had all been different; one he was determined not to love, for the one or two times his heart had been caught by another had taught him what misery that involved. Still he kept Konnan with him for a space. He could see that Konnan was glad himself to be in Goushou's company- doubtless for the preference it would bring him, but for other reasons too, of that Goushou was sure. In the end he'd taken Konnan's service to himself, rewarding the duke his former master liberally for the loss of his servant. Konnan stayed with him in Heaven, easing his loneliness and making his life bearable, and then more than bearable. Without his noticing it the old happiness had come back again, quietly, the way Konnan habitually moved about his quarters, low-key but unquestionably there.
One wounded and imperfect as I. The thought came unbidden and Goushou started in surprise. That isn't true- it was not for his crooked leg that I loved him, but for the kindliness and straightness of his soul. But the idea wouldn't leave him. Konnan's damaged leg had been a part of what made him what he was. Konnan without it... Konnan without it would have been less comfortable to be with, less easy to love.
He shifted in his chair, then got up and started to walk about the house at random. He picked up the book Pipang had been reading... a history of one of the human kingdoms beyond the west... Pipang, who lacked the one thing that made a dragon a dragon... He put the book down suddenly. That is not a lack in him but a difference only, and part of all the other differences that make him rare and precious in himself. I am being morbid now. And thought with renewed desolation I wish he was here.
His thoughts scurried about his head, small mice skittering too quickly to be seen. The oppression of spirit that had shrouded him this last little while came to press heavily like the sullen air before a thunderstorm. Perhaps he should pour himself wine-- but no, wine would not help. He returned to his chair, drank his now cold tea, and refilled his cup. Like being thirteen again myself-- restless misery doing its best to hide an engulfing despair. By reflex he began to recite his mantra, repeating the words and emptying his mind of the present and the sense of who he was now. Ignoring the tension and unhappiness, not fleeing it. It was there- it would not go away- but he was elsewhere now, wandering the corridors of his memory, seeing the figures that walked there with him...
...he was in bed with Konnan. The thing that stood between them, the thing Konnan knew nothing of, was poisoning even the forms they did together, and that Konnan was only too aware of. Goushou could sense his sadness that his best efforts could not bring Goushou to release. And how can I tell him? It is not a fitting thing for a king to say, let alone to feel. It was hopeless, as he had always known it was hopeless.
"Do not trouble yourself, my friend," he told Konnan wearily. "It is my body's nature to deny me pleasure, and no fault of yours."
"My lord is gracious," Konnan's voice said in the dimness beside him. "Yet I know the fault is with me and not with my lord. I lack the resolution I should have in your service."
"Resolution? For what?"
The tiniest of pauses. "To pluck the silver fruit from the slender pear tree."
Goushou went cold and hot at the same time, with disbelief and anger and something that was either fear or hope.
"I do not care for the Duke of the Eastern Maelstrom's poetry," he said spitefully. "It is calculated and calculating. It has no heart." His own heart was beating terribly- what do I want? The thing I wanted is within my grasp. Why am I making difficulties? What if he draws back--?
"Forgive me, lord. I would have spoken otherwise but feared to seem too rustic. But if my lord will excuse the plainness-" and he recited the old poem
Beloved, let me into your garden
Where dew falls on the rushes, oh!
Beloved, let me into your meadow.
Amid the dew-wet rushes, oh!
Goushou felt himself beginning to smile. His heart stilled and joy began to creep into it like the first rays of dawn. He replied with the second verse:
Walk softly when you enter my garden
Lest you shake the dew from the rushes, oh!
Walk softly when you enter my meadow
To pluck the dew-wet rushes, oh!
and turned to his belly. Konnan's warm hands took hold of his hips. Goushou's head swam dizzily- no-one has done this to me but my ani-ue, no-one *should* do this but-- and then Konnan was entering him, slowly and lovingly and exactly the way he had dreamed it might be. It was... wonderful. It was so wonderful, the gentle stroking, the sense of being filled up, the--- dizzying amazing sensation there, no there, right there yes-- With a small part of his brain he knew he was screaming aloud and he bit at the pillow to stifle his voice, and after that there was no him to think at all...
"Goushou-sama? Dear friend-- Goushou-sama--"
Goushou opened his eyes and blinked in surprise. Not Konnan's brown face but a pale red dragon, holding his shoulders and peering down at him in concern. With a start he came into the present.
"Pipang." His voice was rough. He put a hand to his eyes and it came away wet.
"I was lost in a dream of the past," he said, "but you came and woke me into now. I have missed you sorely, dear friend."
"And I you," Pipang said simply. He took Goushou's hand and led him through the study to the back of the house. To the waterfall, Goushou assumed, to bathe the sweat of their separate journeys from them. But it was the bedroom that Pipang entered, letting the door close behind them and turning about into Goushou's arms. "All things in their time," Pipang said, and then said no more because Goushou's mouth was seeking his. Presently Pipang took the King to his bed and Goushou had peace for a space.
He awoke with the warmth and weight of Pipang still half across his back, an obscure consolation as he lay watching the night from dry eyes. After a bit Pipang stirred and slipped down to his side. Pipang's fingers stroked through Goushou's loosened hair and Goushou sighed.
"Would it ease my lord's heart to speak his troubles aloud?"
"My troubles are no more than a fretfulness of spirit that would shame me to put into words. The world is not to my liking just now, but the world was not made to answer to my will."
"Yet the frets of life are like the buzzing of a fly, a tiny thing that can destroy the pleasure of a whole day."
"And I have a fly that buzzes in my palace and gives me no peace."
"Ahh. And his name?"
"Shinran, my son's Older."
"That Shinran who is son and heir to the Duke of the Eastern Maelstrom?"
"I take it he has not inherited his father's parts and nobility then?"
"Parts and nobility?" Goushou snorted. "He is exactly like his father: smooth and self-regarding and overweening. Kaishou is beginning to lose his modesty and reserve under Shinran's influence, and becoming as bumptious as he."
"Ahh," Pipang said neutrally. "That is indeed a trouble. Maybe it is no more than the natural roughness of youth? All boys are awkward at thirteen. They grow out of it."
"Not all. Kaiei the heir to the Blue Dragon was never uncouth. Had he been Kaishou's Older as he should have been, his example and teaching would have kept his cousin from such unbecoming behaviour. But Goujun made this ill-considered alliance with the Duke and I must deal with the consequences."
"Ahh. I have never met the Duke, but he has the reputation of a chivalrous and gallant man. I must say I have much admired that story of the 'silver pears', for it shows the graciousness and generosity of the ocean kings--"
"It is to my family's shame that the incident has become common knowledge even on the continents," Goushou said in vexation.
"Not at all, dear friend. To us it is like a tale from the legends, how the Duke's admiration was roused by the beauty and parts of one far above his station, and so deeply that all other men seemed like phantoms in his sight; and how with courage and modesty he disclosed his love in verse, and the king he loved, being great of heart, consented to lie below him to acknowledge the excellence of his poetry and the purity of his feelings."
"I doubt it happened that way at all," Goushou said, sour. "More likely a quid pro quo. Gouen needed a favour done and the Duke did it, and in return..." He registered the surprise in Pipang's body and looked over at him.
"The Black Dragon---?" Pipang faltered.
"Gouen, yes. What is the matter?"
After a moment Pipang smiled wryly. "It was never said which ocean king the Duke became enamoured of. Somehow I thought--"
It still took a moment for Goushou to understand. "Me? You thought it was **I** who--?!"
"Forgive me, Goushou-sama. The large-heartedness of the king in the story is that which I found in your treatment of myself and so I concluded..."
Goushou snorted, out of a welter of mixed emotions.
"But at least it is not the case that the Duke has been so unfortunate as to lose your favour," Pipang continued contentedly. "That would have been so sad."
"Spare me, Pipang," Goushou groaned. "Do you too admire the poetry of that calculating upstart--"
"I don't dislike it, certainly." Pipang took his hand. "If I may ask a frank question, do you dislike the Duke for his verse or the verse because it is the Duke's?"
Goushou shifted uncomfortably. "I dislike them both equally, and for the same reason, that they lack sincerity."
"Ahh," Pipang said discreetly.
"True," Goushou allowed, "it does not help that my younger brother thinks so highly of one I find an indifferent poet."
"And perhaps it does not help that the man's son has so much influence with your own?"
"If Shinran was modest and reasonable I would never hold his paternity against him; but that he is so much like his father vexes me, when there is nothing I can do to fight his hold on Kaishou. Any father would feel the same as I. In fact I can't see how any father can feel differently when he must entrust his son to a stranger, knowing that it is he who will make his child into a man." Goushou shifted again. "And he may not even ask how it goes with the one who is dearest to him but must suffer his anxieties alone."
"Not alone, surely?" Pipang said. "It is true I can give you no help in this matter, which is and must be foreign to my experience. But if you were to speak to the King of the Eastern Ocean and let him know what troubles you, surely he could help. For he has seen his heir come to manhood and danced the Final Dance with him."
"That I cannot do," Goushou said at once and with decision.
"Because." He drew his shoulders up and turned his face away. Pipang said no more, but silently put his lips to the back of Goushou's neck beneath his loosened mane. Goushou reached back and caught Pipang's hand.
"I am ashamed to own my thoughts to the Blue Dragon," he said in a low voice. "He knows that I am what I am and the matter is past mending, but in his heart he thinks me a pervert. I would not confirm that impression with him."
"I cannot see why concern for your son should seem perversion to the Blue Dragon, or indeed to anyone," Pipang said in surprise.
"A father should not think overmuch about his son's training. Much less-" he took a deep breath. "Much less should he express dislike of his son's Older. The feeling is unnatural and suspicious."
"It was not you who selected Shinran-dono, so there is no reason why you should in fact approve of him. If it will ease your heart, I can tell you it is natural for a father to be anxious over the course of his son's training and the nature of his son's Older, for more than one of my correspondents has confided such concerns to me."
"The customs of the continents are freer than those of the oceans, then, for we do not speak of such things among ourselves."
"In that case, why not consult on this matter with Shantsu-dono of the Western River, who is dear to you and knows you well? I am sure he can set your mind at rest."
"I should cut a sorry figure, running to my Older's Older and asking for comfort at my age."
"Pride?" Pipang said sadly. "Truly, Goushou-sama, it is not well to carry your burdens alone. It is no bad thing to ask help from others occasionally."
"And who is it you ask help of when in trouble, Pipang-dono?"
Pipang's voice sounded conscious. "Ahh, there you have me. It is my shortcoming as well as your own. But I have no family, and hence no real burdens, while you, my dearest lord, have sons and kingdom and people to think of. It seems unfair that you should also be burdened with thoughts you cannot share."
"Yet I have shared them with you, dear Sage, and feel the easier for having done so. Come, let us set this sad conversation aside. Do you wish to bathe now or do you want to--"
"I want to," Pipang said, and thus they did.
For two days Goushou stayed with Pipang and for two days they left the house only to bathe in the waterfall. Pipang's experience of the ways in which dragons company each other was little more than a year old, so each of their meetings revealed something new to him. In turn he devoted himself to Goushou day and night, lavishing tenderness and solicitude on him. Goushou let his attention fill with the loveliness of Pipang's body and the taste and feel of his flesh. At night he slept deeply and woke only to wash and eat a little plain food and return again to the bedroom with Pipang.
Very late on their third night together Pipang asked him when he would return home.
"Not this day but the one after," Goushou said. "Five days is long to be from my kingdom, but for once I will do as I please."
"I would make a request of you but I think you will be unhappy to hear it."
"What is it?" Goushou smiled. "I cannot imagine you asking anything I would not want to give."
"It is not something for myself, or only indirectly. Instead of staying with me tomorrow I would ask you to visit the Blue Dragon and consult him about your trouble."
Goushou was silent.
"I have made you angry with my interference," Pipang said. "I am sorry, my lord."
"You wish me to leave," Goushou said.
"I wish you to stay with me forever, if you might do it with a tranquil mind."
"My mind is always tranquil when I am with you," Goushou said. "And it will not be if I open my heart to my brother. You do not know what you ask of me, and I do not know why you wish me this pain."
"You are always a lively and gentle companion to me. But this time you are not at peace. You drown yourself in pleasure and then drown yourself in sleep, and it saddens me to see you running from yourself so hard."
Goushou felt heat in his face. "I did not mean to use you as a drug to quiet my troubles. I am sorry if you thought that was why I came--"
"I did not." Pipang sounded surprised. No rancour there, and Goushou felt doubly miserable with the obscure rancour he himself was feeling. Pipang's soul was like a spring of fresh water and his own seemed to him like a muddy pool. "My lord is unhappy and I cannot take his unhappiness from him. The King of the Eastern Ocean is older and wiser than I, and I think may love you even better than I do. If anyone can ease your present trouble I think it will be he." He turned his head away. "I wish I might be the one to lift this burden from you but my life has not given me that ability, and I regret it more today than I ever have."
"Pipang." Goushou drew the slender body to him. "Dear friend, dear Sage. Do not be unhappy; it hurts me to see it." Pipang hugged him.
"And it hurts me to see your own unhappiness, and so, selfishly, I would have you cure it."
"Very well," Goushou said, and put from him the thought of what he was promising. "I will do as you ask."
He landed on the battlements of the eastern palace. The guards, accustomed to the unheralded comings and goings of the Red Dragon, knelt in courtesy while one backed away to announce him to the King. Goushou strode after the man.
"Goushou-sama! I beg you, be pleased to wait here--"
Goushou ignored the guard-captain's words and consternation alike. The man ahead of him looked back in dismay, but was not about to dispute the actions of the King of the Southern Ocean. He must have concluded that the business that brought him here was both urgent and grave. Even so, he hesitated as he reached the King's council chambers, casting an uncertain glance at the chamberlain who stood by the door.
The chamberlain bowed to Goushou and began, "Your Majesty, this person will announce-- Your Majesty!" for Goushou had pushed past him and opened the doors himself. Goukou looked up from the scrolls laid out on the table, his automatic frown of displeasure turning at once to surprise and concern at sight of his brother.
"Goushou! What brings you here in such haste?"
"Why nothing, ani-ue, merely the desire to have sight of you." The tone sounded insolent even to his own ears. What do I think I'm doing? Goushou wondered. I have no cause for anger at my brother, so why am I angry? I am being childish- acting worse than Kaishou. But reasoning thus made no difference. He was doing only what he had to.
"Indeed." Goukou gave him an unreadable look. "Very well. Gentlemen, you have leave. We will continue this business later." His secretaries and ministers bowed. Goukou stood up and walked through their midst towards Goushou and the door. "Come," was all he said. Goushou followed after him, down the long corridor to the King's chambers, eyes on the stiff displeasure in the High King's back.
You've done it now, fool, he thought in despair and disgust. You've earned your brother's anger and probably a whipping as well. Ask his pardon- you still have time-- and knew he would do no such thing. The churning unhappiness of the last months was out in the open now. He needed some kind of explosion to dispel it and Goukou was the only one who could give him that. That he himself would be hurt in consequence made him bitterly happy. It was only fitting, for the world itself was a place of pain and everything in it these days had power to hurt him.
Goukou took him through the throng of servants in his outer chambers- through his dayroom- and into the solitude of his bedroom. "Well?" he said, turning round at last. "Here I am, Goushou. What have you to say to me?" Goushou looked away, face set in sullen lines. "Very good. If you want to be stubborn we'll deal with this the short way. Strip and bend."
"What if I say no?" Goushou heard his voice saying, high and tight. "What will you do then, ani-ue?"-- and found himself falling backwards before he knew it, the result of Goukou's ferocious shove to the chest. The back of his legs hit the bed and he went over with Goukou's weight on top of him. Knowing it useless he still fought against him, with claws and teeth and the little leverage his legs were allowed, but Goukou pinned his arms and Goukou's thick robes mocked his attempts to bite. Yet Goukou was making no active attempt to subdue him, and that fact at least gave the release of molten fury to his miserable anger.
"Fight me, damn you," he bellowed, trying to hack at Goukou's legs. "You despise me, you think me a weakling, you think me not worth even the trouble of striking--" Tears were in his eyes and his voice, while rage and despair clawed at his soul. "You will battle Gouen in the skies but not me on earth, for I am not man enough for that, isn't that right?! Isn't it!?"
"No," Goukou said next to his ear where Goukou's head kept Goushou's own from turning. "I will not battle you because I fear what it would cost me."
Goushou gave a loud laugh, but Goukou's voice went on unmoved. "You do not defy me in challenge to try which of us is the stronger, but from misery of spirit, and thus it has always been. It is your unhappiness that speaks at times like this, not you. I will not waste my energy battling that false Goushou but wait until the real one returns."
Goushou spoke between his teeth. "Do you truly think I never grow weary of being patronized by you, my wise loving ani-ue who understands his foolish brother so thoroughly? I tell you I am sick of it. Keep your patience and your love and your contempt. I hate it and I hate you."
He sensed the moment's stillness in Goukou's body with a feeling of satisfaction. One stroke at least to his score, whatever he had to pay for it.
"Then you hate me," Goukou said. "That is natural to our kind when we battle. Gouen would have killed me after I defeated him had I given him the chance, and I knew it and he knew it. His hatred had no power to trouble me, for I was Victor and cared for nothing else. Perhaps you would be happier if I joined you in the skies where you are now and battled you with the words that are your weapon. But still I fear to do it. For you are more complex than Gouen, not so black and white as he. He forgot the feeling of the skies when his soul came back to earth and did not resent the harm I did him there. But you would remember your wounds afterwards and grieve that I gave you them, and therefore I will go on refusing your challenge."
A numbing weariness laid hold of Goushou's spirit. He let out a deep sigh that took the last of his energy with it. Goukou was heavy and hot on top of him, and his body was reacting as ever to his brother's closeness. Goukou's own breath was deepening and Goushou felt the tension growing in him. He shut his eyes and the water ran out of them, willess and scalding.
"Ani-ue, why do you even care?" he said from the darkness of his soul.
"Need you ask that?" Goukou murmured into his ear.
"I don't understand," he mourned. "I weary myself so much I can scarce bear my life. How do *you* put up with me?"
"It's not so difficult." Goukou kissed him. "I will tell you a thing you may not know, or may have forgotten. You are the one man in the world who knows me as myself. To others I am King or father or lord. To Goujun I was his ani-ue, to be revered and loved and feared, and even Gouen thinks of me so, for I was a man when he came to years of reason. That is natural and right. But you alone can speak to me as the one I am, not king or brother or all-wise counsellor, and so I will not let you go if I may keep you with me."
"Ahh..." Goushou said. There was nothing else to say. Goukou's mouth moved tentatively against his skin and Goushou let his body take over from his exhausted spirit. The wet persistence of Goukou's tongue about his eartips, about his horns, was driving him from knowledge of himself. Somehow he managed to get his clothes open, or Goukou managed it for him, and his root felt the air on it for a moment before it disappeared into Goukou's mouth.
He gasped. Words like stop and wait were in his head but could not make it to his lips. Goukou's tongue was-- Goukou's tongue-- He arched and cried at his release, between pleasure and despair. Later, I wanted it afterwards, I want you--
Goukou turned him over. Goushou buried his wet face in the bedclothes and raised his hips. Goukou's thumb reached underneath him and played about the edge of his sheath so that he gasped and rocked unthinkingly on his arms. Goukou's root was pressing against his flanks as his own root emerged again. Goushou butted backwards In, come in, and then finally the consoling largeness pushed between his buttocks, filled him up wholly and moved against the inside of him where it felt good so good...
It was sometime later that he came back to himself, body lax and spirit numb, as if it had drunk some psychic form of poppy.
"Mhh?" Goukou's voice said. Goushou turned his head. Goukou was in his shirt. He himself-- he propped himself up, shifting uncomfortably. His clothing was balled beneath him, crumpled and stained. He undid the fastenings of his sleeve, and Goukou reached over to help him, then pulled his cote from him and tossed it to the floor. Goushou's boots and breeches followed
"We'll have those washed," Goukou said and held out his arms to him.
"Hai, ani-ue." He hid his face against his brother's shoulder and they subsided into the tumbled warmth of the bed.
"So what is it that troubles you, Goushou?"
His tongue was heavy. "I would not speak of it."
Goukou snorted. "You walk unannounced into my palace, break into my council meeting, insult me in my own hall, scandalize my servants, and force me to interrupt my work; and then will not tell me what drives you to it. Propriety aside, doesn't that strike you as at the very least inefficient?"
Goushou smiled bitterly. "It answers my needs. Were I able to speak my troubles I would not have to defy you."
"Ahh. Some things never change. Let us speak of other matters then, till you find your tongue. Tell me of your family. Has Kaishou had his First Crossing yet?" Goushou was stone. Goukou sounded satisfied. "I might have known. Come, Goushou, spit it out. What's the trouble with Kaishou?"
"I do not wish to speak of it," Goushou repeated doggedly.
"Then I shall have to guess. Let us see. It is not, I think, that Kaishou threatens to outshine you in looks or talent as he comes to manhood, but perhaps you begin to feel yourself growing old and unattractive?"
"Yet I think not, for the word is that you have won the heart of a famous beauty who has never looked at another before this. Indeed, Goushou, this last year or so I have thought you handsomer than I've ever seen you and rejoiced for your happiness. So is it that you regret the loss of your own childhood that you see now leaving your son? I had not thought your own youth so pleasant that you would have regrets for it but still..."
"Ani-ue, do you mock me?" Goushou said in a dangerous voice.
"No. I tell you what was in my own heart when I was told Kaiei was approaching his First Crossing, and realized the distance that stood now between myself and the boy I once was. It was a lonely feeling and I had no words for it at the time. It did not trouble me when it was Kaisou's turn, incidentally, so you will probably be alright when it comes to be Kaifu's."
Goushou looked down. "Your pardon. No, it is nothing like that. But ani-ue- it is unfitting for us to speak of the stage of life that my son is now at--"
"Some things are not to be considered too closely," Goushou said, face burning. "It is the action of a sick mind, like raking through a privy. It should be enough to know that my son's training... is in good hands..." He faltered.
"And not to wonder how he fares in it? Yet all men do."
"I don't believe it. Do you think Father ever gave it a moment's thought?"
"He had no need to: he knew Shantsu-dono's quality. If Kaishou's Older was Kaiei, would you feel these anxieties? I doubt it. But you have little love for the Duke of the Eastern Maelstrom and hence no confidence in his son."
"He has no sensitivity," Goushou said fiercely. "He is all conceit and self-assurance. How will Kaishou fare lying beneath one like that?"
"As all men do. However skilled or admirable one's Older, the First Crossing hurts and is meant to hurt. You know that to be true. My Older was as close to perfection as one can come in a man, and he was not tender of me at my Crossing nor would he allow me to be tender of you at yours."
Goushou was silent. Goukou stroked his hair.
"You remember the hurts of your own youth and wish to keep Kaishou from them. You would feel differently, I think, if you had reared him from infancy, for then you would know one cannot shield children from all pain. One shouldn't even try. There are always fevers and broken bones and disappointments, and all are part of growing up. You know that even from caring for Gouen. It is the fact that Kaishou is your son that makes you overfearful for him."
"He is not my son," Goushou said bitterly. "His father was taken from him untimely and I have tried only to fill his place, and doubt I have done it well. I would give him my aid and comfort as his uncle, but I may not even do that; for he is my son to the world and he himself does not desire my help."
"That is the hardest part of being a father," Goukou said slowly, "and seeing your son reach manhood. The child who depended on you for his existence no longer needs or even wishes your aid. There is a part of his life, the central part of it, that belongs to another man, and you are not allowed even to know what it is that he experiences with that man. Between the ages of twelve and eighteen your own son is nearly a stranger to you, and you wonder- I wondered- if he would ever be again the son I knew. And the answer is no." He reached over and brushed away the tears that were running from Goushou's eyes. "But look you, Goushou- that is the one thing that allows him to be a man in his own right and not a child forever. That which is most basic to his life as a dragon must come from someone else, not you, and for our heirs it must come from someone who is not even of our kin. It is that injection of strangerhood, unknown and perilous though it seems, that allows your son to meet you at last as a man and to take on the responsibilities he will have as a prince and a king. Without it he would be only a sort of doll that moves to your will- and who would have an heir like that, or leave his kingdom to be ruled by one such?"
"You speak wisely, ani-ue," Goushou said, "and you make me feel very young."
"If I speak wisely it is because I was counselled wisely, by both Shantsu-dono and Hisui, when Kaiei first put on his Older's colours and my heart was sorer than I could understand. No doubt you will pass it on to Gouen in turn."
Goushou could not forebear smiling. "Gouen will not need it, I think, for I suppose it is Kaiei who will train his heir. No-one could feel unease when your son is about."
"No, in fact. Kaisou will be newly finished his training then and it is he I will send to the Northern Ocean. It will steady him, and he admires his uncle and will relish the freedom of being away from home."
Goushou frowned. "I had hoped Kaisou might train Kaifu, for Kaishou will not yet be fifteen when his brother binds his hair."
"Mhh," Goukou said dubiously. "I would not set one as hasty as Kaisou to train a sensitive child like Kaifu. Brothers are still the best partners for each other. The thought I had had, if things were not going smoothly with your heir, was to bring Kaifu here for Kaiei to train. Yet perhaps you would not care to be parted from him for such a length of time."
"I would miss him sorely," Goushou said at once. "And surely he would be lonely for his brother."
Goukou was silent and Goushou said, "I know what is in your heart. Kaifu and I are the same colour and folk will think I must be over-partial to him. Yet I am not, I can assure you--"
"That was not my thought. If I had any worries on that score, it would be because you and Kaifu are alike in spirit, and that might make you too sympathetic to be wholly just to him. But it is true, he would miss you and his brother, so we must hope Kaishou becomes mature enough to carry out his duties."
"Yet I fear that the influence Shinran has on him will make him hard and unloving. He is growing sullen with me and overbearing with his servants, and there is nothing I can do about it."
"Ahh," Goukou said. "I had a brother who was sullen with his father and overbearing with his servants, but if it was his Older's doing it was something he never told me to my face."
Goushou blinked. "But that was--"
"Different. How different was it, do you think? It seems to me that Kaishou is unhappy as you were unhappy, because his life is hard for him just now. He has adolescence added to his other troubles- the loss of his father, the change in his home; even the fact that his Older is not one of his kin. I don't know that it's all Shinran's doing." Goushou shifted. "Truly, Goushou, can you be just to the young man when you dislike his father so? and if the Duke is as small a man as you think, why did you not have a word in season with Goujun and warn him against the alliance Gouen suggested? Or did you not know at the time that Gouen had lain beneath him?"
"What, you don't know? Surely--"
"Of course I know! But how did *you*--"
"I had occasion to ask him who he had lain beneath. How did you find out?"
Goushou took a breath to still his tingling nerves. "He told me. He was afire for me to hear the poem the Duke had made for him and the one he composed in answer. Of course he did not name the person the Duke had approached, but it was clear enough that it was himself."
"Yet when we first discussed the matter of Kaishou's Older, you did not think Gouen's partiality to the Duke might colour his judgment unduly- or if you thought so you did not say it. If Shinran was good enough to train Goujun's son, why is he not good enough to train yours?" Goushou turned away from him. "No, don't bother getting angry at me again. I won't allow you to dodge that way."
Goushou strove to keep his voice level. "I came here hoping for comfort, ani-ue, not blame."
"Hardly. You expected blame and therefore you came armed with anger to meet it. But I do not blame you, and I have comforted you already and will do so again if you desire it. In return you must be honest with me. Answer my question."
"It's different," Goushou said, forcing himself to obedience. "What Goujun would have done with his son and his son's Older was Goujun's own decision. But Kaishou is my responsibility now and I fear-- I fear that I will not do right by him. That he will have as miserable a time of it as I did." He fell silent, but Goukou said nothing, and Goushou was obliged to finish. "That he will feel about me what I felt about our father. He is unhappy already. Bad enough if that is Shinran's doing; worse, by me, if it makes him turn to Shinran for comfort. And if you think that unnatural in me--" he began hotly.
"I do not. Cool your head a little, Goushou. You are starting at shadows. What you feel is a father's concern, not a lover's jealousy. Is that plain speaking enough?"
Goushou's face flamed again. "Yes," he managed. "That is plain enough."
"Good," Goukou said. "You will not ask me how I came to know the difference." Goushou felt a sudden dizziness, not certain he had understood aright.
"Oh yes. You planted the idea yourself, in all innocence, and gave me some bad moments. It is in our blood and sometimes it whispers to us from the shadows. But you were the one who said that the music of our ancestors sounds less clearly in your blood than in your brothers'. Less clearly, not more. Your doubts about Shinran, whether justified or not, do not proceed from any improper feelings. You may be certain of that. Does that help your difficulty?"
"Yes," he said, with relief, and at once added "No. The problem of Kaishou and Shinran remains the same. I cannot see how I am to solve it."
"I was advised that the cure for being overtroubled about these matters is to find a new favourite. It certainly alters one's view, I will say, but it doesn't sort with your nature. This Pipang of Tsaomei'kang- is it not possible for him to guest with you for a while?"
"I would it were, but no, he cannot. His spirit belongs to his waterfall, and he is not one who cares to be near the centre of a great company. He does best where he belongs, on his own hill. And I must stay where I belong, in my own ocean."
"Ahh. Then I must think on the matter a little longer. You will stay the night with me, at least? Or do affairs in your kingdom call you home?"
"I will stay and gladly, if you will bear with me a little longer."
"Good. Let's finish here and get ourselves cleaned up." He sat up. Goushou got out of the bed and came round to Goukou's side. He knelt and touched his forehead to his brother's feet. "Ani-ue, your worthless brother begs forgiveness for his insolence earlier and thanks you most humbly for your patience with him. I suppose-" he swallowed- "you will correct me for my fault?"
"Indeed. Your conduct was most blameworthy and I would be remiss to let it pass."
"Then may I beg one favour more?"
"Let me have my correction before we bathe so I may be spared the added pain of it afterwards."
"That I will do. Ring for Shenzen."
The majordomo entered at once. "We will bathe shortly," Goukou told him. "Summon the bathmen and prepare fresh robes for my brother. Also inform the lord Chancellor that I will meet with the council again in half an hour. And send Jourin here with the middle-weight bamboo." Shenzen bowed and retired, to be replaced too soon by a modest brown dragon bearing the rod. He knelt and proffered it to his master and retired with downcast eyes at Goukou's signal. Chest tight with apprehension, Goushou waited for the young man to be gone, and saw Goukou's eyes follow him from the room.
"Your current favourite?" he commented, though bravado was doubtless unadvised just now. "You do me honour."
Goukou gave him a brief ironic look. "One of them. You could do worse yourself."
"Not my nature, as you have said, ani-ue. Where do you want me?"
Goukou nodded to the bed. "There."
He bent himself over and took a deep breath. Goukou gave him ten strokes. They sounded loudly in the room yet somehow hurt less than they should have. He blinked and waited for Goukou to put some weight in his arm, but Goukou only said, "Done."
Goushou straightened up, frowning; knelt and put Goukou's hands to his forehead. "Your foolish brother thanks you for your correction, ani-ue. But-" he looked up- "that wasn't much by way of punishment."
"There was no need for it. You make yourself suffer quite enough without my having to stir myself to do it." Goukou pulled him to his feet. "That was for the edification of my household, to demonstrate that I do not brook disorder even from those who are dearest to me," and he kissed him. Goushou's eyes filled with unexpected tears. "Good," Goukou said approvingly. "You should certainly weep after such a whipping. Now conduct yourself meekly for the rest of the evening and my servants will continue to tremble before me."
"Hai, ani-ue." Lips twitching, Goushou struck the gong again and the room filled with Goukou's attendants. They removed Goukou's shirt and Goushou's and wrapped them in robes. He followed Goukou towards the bathplace, but his brother halted purposely to murmur in his ear, "Meek does not involve that self-satisfied smirk, Goushou."
"Your pardon, ani-ue," he murmured back, and pulled his face into a suitably quenched expression.
"Wash me down only," Goukou said to his bathman. "I must get back to work. But my brother has come from the Western Continent and will need the full course. Be tender in your ministrations; he smarts from my anger."
In fact the first water down his back did make him flinch and gasp without thinking. The old blue dragon who attended him handled him gently as a baby after that. Beside him Goukou grunted as his bathman dumped water on him and washed him briskly. Goukou stood up and shook himself while the blue dragon was still working on Goushou's shoulders. Goushou made to stand but Goukou waved him back down.
"We will meet before dinner. Make yourself at home in my chambers. Sleep if you like, or send for refreshment. Shenzen will do all your bidding. And consider this idea I have had. What if I send Kaiei to stay with you for a space and see if that makes a difference? I do not doubt that he will balance whatever influence Shinran is having on your son, and who knows but that his example may amend the young man himself?"
"Thank you, ani-ue," Goushou said, feeling a load lift from his shoulders. "That lightens my heart more than I can say. And-" he looked sideways up at Goukou, "Kaiei can tell you that my feelings about Shinran are founded in fact, not prejudice. I think you will believe him."
"If he tells me so, yes, I will," Goukou agreed blandly. He walked away to the entrance place where his bathman waited with a linen towel, and Goushou, with a happy sigh, turned back to the blue dragon's kneading. He felt sleepy and very relaxed, and as his mind wandered he thought suddenly, "But if I built Pipang a small house in my garden, away from the comings and goings of the court, perhaps he might consent to visit me for a few days at a time? I will write him and ask..." and then he gave himself over to dreaming of what home would be like if Pipang was there with him.
Dec 03-Jan 04